Protesters display placards as they march towards a courthouse during the trial of a prominent lawyer and five other activists in Hanoi on April 5. Vietnam is clamping down hard on freedom of speech. (Photo by Jenny Vaughan/AFP)
An appeal court in Vietnam has upheld severe sentences imposed on a law student and two other rights activists for engaging in anti-state propaganda.
On July 10, the High-level People's Court in capital Hanoi rejected the appeal of Tran Hoang Phuc, a 24-year-old student from Ho Chi Minh City University of Law and president of the unsanctioned Vietnam Students' Association for Human Rights, the state-run Hanoimoi newspaper reported.
The court also endorsed Phuc's six-year prison sentence and another four years' probation imposed by a lower court.
The 13-hour proceedings further upheld the previous convictions of Vu Quang Thuan and Nguyen Van Dien, both of them sentenced to a total of 14 years and six months in jail as well as nine years of probation.
The newspaper reported that in 2016-17 the three defendants were convicted of conducting anti-state propaganda for posting 17 video clips on social media and storing material libeling the government, distorting the ruling party's history and policies, and offending government leaders.
Unlike in their first hearing on January 31, the three defendants' relatives were allowed to enter the courtroom. All streets leading to the court building were blocked by police and militia.
Foreign diplomatic representatives reportedly observed the hearing in an adjacent room via a television screen.
On July 8, thousands of people, including activists and followers of other faiths, gathered to attend a special Mass held at the Redemptorist-run Thai Ha Church to pray for the prisoners of conscience to be tried fairly. The event was organized at the defendants' request, a church source said.
In a homily, Father John Nguyen Ngoc Nam Phong urged participants to bravely speak out in support of justice and truth as the three jailed activists had done.
The priest said good Catholics needed to engage in political issues to improve society and prevent wrong decisions by government leaders.
He also asked the government to abandon its communist ideology, which had ruined the nation's traditions and moral values.
Prior to the appeal hearing, Amnesty International asked Vietnam's government to quash all convictions against the three men and release them. Vietnam should end its long-running use of repressive laws to prosecute and punish peaceful activists, Amnesty said.
On July 5, police arrested blogger Le Anh Hung, a Hanoi resident, under suspicion of "abusing democratic freedom" after he published an open letter criticizing a new government policy on economic zones.
Vietnam continues to incarcerate some 170 prisoners of conscience, according to a coalition consisting of 15 international and domestic rights' groups.
Lawyer Ngo Ngoc Trai, one of nine lawyers who defended the activists, said on Facebook that their trial was not democratic or fair.
The judges prevented the defendants from expressing their views, he said.
Lawyer Trai noted that the judges had also refused to review the defendants' video clips which were alleged to be part of an anti-state campaign.