Pham Chi Dung, head of the Independent Journalists’ Association of Vietnam, was handed a 15-year jail term. (Photo supplied)
A court in southern Vietnam has imposed harsh sentences on three reporters who work for a society of freedom of information.
On Jan. 5, the People’s Court in Ho Chi Minh City sentenced Pham Chi Dung, 55, head of the Independent Journalists’ Association of Vietnam, to a 15-year jail term. His deputy Nguyen Tuong Thuy, 71, and his assistant Le Huu Minh Tuan, 31, were each given 11-year sentences.
The three journalists have to serve three years’ probation after finishing their sentences.
They were prosecuted for "making, storing, spreading information, materials, items for the purpose of opposing the state" under Article 117 of the criminal law.
State-run Vietnam News Agency reported that the court also confiscated 1 million dong (US$43,000) the defendants had allegedly earned from their work.
The agency said their heavy sentences aimed at warning, preventing and educating other people.
It said the defendants, who were accused of regularly meeting with other dissidents, were dissatisfied with the government and founded the association in 2014, which the government said had promoted political change.
They wrote and posted some 2,300 articles, 36 of which allegedly had content tarnishing the Communist Party and government officials’ prestige and causing concern to the public.
Catholic lawyer Dang Dinh Manh, who defended Dung and Tuan, said the defendants admitted their activities relating to the foundation and management of the association with 72 members who run the online Vietnam Thoi Bao or Vietnam Times, which is highly critical of the country’s political, economic and social issues.
Manh said the defendants argued that their writings aimed at promoting freedom of expression, press, establishment of associations and the values of democracy and human rights that are stipulated by the constitution.
“They denied the charges against their services that they said did not violate the law,” said Manh. “January 5 is a sad day for press freedom.”
Lawyer Nguyen Van Mieng, who defended Dung and Thuy, said Thuy, who wrote 245 critical stories, told the trial that his stories voiced his serious concerns about national issues.
“In the future, what we do today will become normal,” Thuy said.
Mieng said Tuan told the judge: “I believe that the government will really respect civil rights. We do not violate the law. We only exercise our rights to freedom of expression, press and association foundation. We do not undermine the state but do make the state powerful.”
Mieng said Dung, who was arrested in November 2019, told the trial judge that harsh sentences for the association’s members will only help the international community understand the press freedom situation in Vietnam.
Dung, a former party member, asked for a full investigation into their cases and warned that the government will face difficulties in diplomatic ties if they are given hard sentences.
The writer left the party in 2013 because the party was a sad disappointment to him and other members. He was banned from going abroad and had his passport confiscated in 2014.
Manh, who met Dung in prison in November, said Dung told him that “I daily pray and feel at ease and peace, even when I was questioned. I found God here in 2012.” He was detained for months for allegedly producing materials to overthrow the government.
“It is strange that I dreamed about my beloved parents, wife, children and some priests but I never dreamed about Jesus, whom I love very much,” the reporter said.
Manh told him: “You are at peace every day means that God is always in you. You do not need to dream about him.”
The Catholic lawyer was deeply moved by the prisoner, who held on tightly to his hands, saying: “Thank you, my lawyer. I have seen him [God].”
Manh said faith gives his client tremendous courage in the face of adversity.