Hai was first arrested in April 2008 and held without charge for five months. A closed court sentenced him to two and a half years in prison for tax evasion on September 10, 2008-charges that rights groups criticized as a pretext to stifle his critical blog postings about the government and its policies.
After completing his prison term, Hai remained in detention while authorities investigated new anti-state charges related specifically to his online journalism. On September 24, 2012, a criminal court sentenced Hai to 12 years in prison and five years’ house arrest under Article 88 of the penal code, a vague law that bars “conducting propaganda” against the state. An appellate court upheld his sentence on December 28, 2012.
Hai was an outspoken commentator on his political blog Dieu Cay (The Peasant’s Pipe) and on the website of the unsanctioned Free Journalists Club, which he co-founded with two other bloggers. (Co-founders Phan Thanh Hai and Ta Phong Tan were also tried and convicted in September 2012.)
Several of Hai’s blog entries had touched on politically sensitive issues, including national protests against China, Vietnam’s sovereignty dispute with China over the nearby Spratly and Paracel islands, and government corruption.
Court President Nguyen Phi Long said in his verdict that Hai and the other two bloggers had “abused the popularity of the Internet to post articles which undermined and blackened Vietnam’s (leaders), criticizing the (Communist) party (and) destroying people’s trust in the state,” according to an Agence France-Presse report.
The one-day trial was plagued with procedural irregularities, according to the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint reporting program of international human rights groups. The observatory reported that the court cut off the microphone when Hai spoke to defend himself and that his lawyer was barred from calling any witnesses.
Hai has been frequently moved between far-flung prison facilities without his family being told. In February 2013, he was transferred from northern Binh Duong province’s Bo La prison to southern Ba Ria-Vung Tau province’s Xuyen Moc prison camp. On April 26, 2013, he was transferred again to central Nghe An province’s Thanh Chuong District Prison No. 6. The frequent moves have limited his family’s ability to deliver essential medicines for his declining health, including symptoms related to hypertension.
On June 23, 2013, Hai began waging a hunger strike after prison authorities tried to force him to sign an admission of guilt for the anti-state offenses for which he was convicted. He was placed in solitary confinement when he refused to sign the confession. His family said he was barely recognizable and could not walk or talk during a five-minute prison visit on July 20, 2013. He ended his strike on July 27, 2013, after the highest government prosecutor’s office agreed to investigate a petition he filed about alleged widespread prison abuses, according to Radio Free Asia.
Hai was bestowed CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award in 2013.