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Blogger's prison sentence reduced, news site shuttered in Vietnam

Bangkok, October 5, 2016 - A Vietnamese appeals court yesterday reduced from four to three years a prison sentence given earlier this year to independent blogger Nguyen Ngoc Gia on anti-state charges related to his critical journalism, according to news reports.

Gia, also known as Nguyen Dinh Ngoc, was sentenced on March 30 under article 88 of the Penal Code, which carries maximum 20-year prison penalties for "propagandizing" against the state. Judges ruled that 22 of Gia's articles, 14 of which were published on independent blogs and news sites, defamed Communist Party leaders and the state, reports said. Gia also reported frequently for the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Asia's Vietnamese language service.

In a two-hour hearing, Ho Chi Minh City's People's Court ruled to reduce Gia's prison sentence because of his family's ties to the ruling Communist Party, news reports said, citing Gia's lawyer. Radio Free Asia reported that Gia's mother had sheltered North Vietnamese troops during the Vietnam War and that his father was a longtime Communist Party member. The court ruled to uphold a three-year probationary period that will restrict Gia from leaving his residential compound in Ho Chi Minh City after fully serving his prison term.

Ha Huy Son, Gia's defense attorney, told reporters after the hearing that Gia testified he was not against the state, but rather was "dismayed" with the country's situation. Gia reported frequently on sensitive political and social issues, including the jailing of journalists and activists on anti-state charges. Son said that Gia requested early release because he was suffering from undisclosed health problems since being imprisoned, reports said. Gia was held in pre-trial detention for 15 months before his conviction, CPJ research shows.

"While the reduction of blogger Nguyen Ngoc Gia's sentence is welcome news, he should not be imprisoned in the first place," said Shawn Crispin, CPJ's senior Southeast Asia representative. "Gia's supposed crime was to report critically on government abuse and repression. He should be immediately and unconditionally released, along with all the other journalists Vietnam now wrongfully holds behind bars."

Vietnam held at least six journalists in prison, including Gia, when CPJ conducted its annual global census of imprisoned journalists on December 1, 2015. On September 22 this year, an appeals court in Hanoi, the national capital, upheld the anti-state convictions of independent bloggers Nguyen Huu Vinh and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy, who are respectively serving five and three-year prison sentences for their journalistic activities.

In a related development, authorities revoked the press credentials of Nguyen Nhu Phong, editor of the state-owned PetroTimes news website, for "wrongdoing in press activities," and removed him from his post, according to a Ministry of Information and Communications statement released on Monday cited in news reports. The publication will be suspended for three months on government orders, after which authorities will decide if it may reopen, reports said. The site's front page is now a single line of text announcing its suspension.

The ministry statement did not provide details on the reason for Phong's dismissal or its decision to close down PetroTimes. According to news reports, local journalists speculated that the reprimand was motivated by Phong's editorial decision to publish excerpts of an interview with exiled blogger Nguoi Buon Gio that discussed alleged corruption in Vietnam's largest state-run oil and gas company, PetroVietnam. All mainstream media in Vietnam is state-owned and slanted heavily in favor of the ruling Communist Party and its policies.

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