Phan Van Thu, second from left, stands with members of his organization,… (Vietnam News Agency )
Vietnam on Monday sentenced the head of an organization accused of “smearing the current system” and trying to topple the government to life behind bars, state media reported.
The official Vietnam News Agency reported that Phan Van Thu headed the “reactionary political organization” that planned to establish a new state “led by Thu and his accomplices,” writing documents that attacked state policies and tried to erode trust in the Communist Party of Vietnam.
Twenty-one other people in Bia Son Council for Laws and Public Affairs were handed jail terms ranging from 10 years to 17 years, according to state media. Lawyer Nguyen Huong Que reported the same sentences to news agencies.
"The sentences are adequate for their crimes," the attorney told Agence France-Presse, which reported that he was appointed by the court to defend them.
Little is known about the group outside the country. State media reported the organization was a political network operating under the cover of an ecotourism company, which attracted nearly 300 members and donations from the Vietnamese diaspora. A human rights activist living outside the country said last week that the Bia Son Council appeared to be chiefly a religious group.
“Even looking at the government evidence, I don’t see any real political opposition there,” said Nguyen Ngoc Bich, one of the founders of the Vietnam Human Rights Network. “But the government is afraid of any organization they think will be the germ of an opposition party.”
The sentences are the latest in a recent wave of charges for subversion in Vietnam that has disturbed human rights groups and United Nations officials.
During 2012, at least 40 activists were convicted and jailed for offenses such as "undermining unity" and "infringing on state interests," according to Human Rights Watch, which denounced the government for "rising repression." In January, 14 activists linked to the banned political party and democracy group Viet Tan were jailed for as many as 13 years, spurring an international outcry.
Last week, the country freed a Viet Tan activist, U.S. citizen Nguyen Quoc Quan, who had been detained on subversion charges for more than nine months. Despite their joy, democracy activists cautioned that the release of the California man did not mean Vietnam would relent in other subversion cases, especially those that failed to attract the same outside pressure and interest.
“A group like that doesn’t have any outside support,” Nguyen Ngoc Bich said last week when asked about the 22 detainees. “If the victims are not well known, and nobody speaks out on their behalf, they will ignore it.”
State media hinted that the punishments could have been stiffer.
“The jury ruled the defendants’ offense to be extremely serious, but they pleaded guilty during the investigation and trial, so their criminal responsibility has been reduced,” the Vietnam News Agency reported.
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