PARIS, 4 February 2013 (VIETNAM COMMITTEE) – The Vietnam Committee on Human Rights is profoundly shocked by the extremely harsh sentences handed down on members of a nonviolent group by the People’s Court in Phu Yen today. The group’s leader Phan Van Thu, 65, was condemned to life imprisonment and the other 21 defendants to sentences ranging from 10 to 17 years on charges of “activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration” (Article 79 of the Vietnamese Criminal Code).
Pham Van Thu after his arrest in February 2012
“This is another blow to freedom of expression and freedom of conscience in Vietnam” said VCHR President Vo Van Ai. “Vietnam’s human rights record is abysmal, and it is getting worse. Imprisoning an elderly man for life just because of his nonviolent beliefs is a new low, even by Vietnam’s standards”. Mr. Ai added that the group did not have the right to a fair trial. The 5-day trial was closed to the public. Their lawyer Nguyen Huong Que, who was appointed by the Court, accepted the sentences proposed by the People’s Procuracy without discussion. He said that “the sentences fitted their crimes”.
The peaceful group, known as the “Bia Son Council for Public Law and Affairs” ran an eco-tourist company at the Da Bia Tourist Resort in Phu Yen Province. They signed a contact with the local authorities to engage in protecting the forest and environment. The group believed in the prophecies of Nguyen Binh Khiem, a 16th century oracle or Vietnamese equivalent of Nostradamus, and dreamed of building a new “Utopia” in which science, nature and humankind would be harmoniously balanced. They organized conferences and produced leaflets to disseminate their beliefs. According to reports in the state-run media, the group had several hundred members and sections in several central and southern provinces.
Arrested in February 2012, the group was originally charged with “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe on the interests of the State” (article 258 of the Criminal Code) which carries a maximum sentence of seven years, but was changed in April 2012 to “subversion”, which is punishable by terms of up to life imprisonment or the death penalty. The UN has repeatedly denounced Article 79, which makes no distinction between violent acts and the exercise of peaceful expression.
According to the official daily Saigon Gai Phong (Saigon Liberation), the group “chose the method of nonviolence” to “try to win the confidence of the masses against the leadership of the Party and State”.
“In most countries, this is called democracy” said Vo Van Ai. “In Vietnam, it is subversion. Vietnam blandly adheres to core UN Human Rights treaties whilst continuing to trample on its people’s rights ”.
Members of the group include Phan Van Thu, 65 years old, Tu Thien Luong, 63, Tran Quan, 29, Le Duc Dong, 30, Nguyen Thai Binh, 27, Le Duy Loc, 57, Le Phuc, 62, Vo Thanh Le, 58, Nguyen Ky Lac, 62, Vuong Tan Son, 60, Vu Ngoc Cu, 62, Doan Dinh Nam, 62, Vo Tiet, 61, Nguyen Dinh, 45, Doan Van Cu, 51, Phan Thanh Y, 65, Do Thi Hong, 56, Tran Phi Dung, 47 ans, Le Trong Cu, 47, Phan Thanh Tuong, 26, Ta Khu, 66 and Luong Nhat Quang, 26.