A Facebook user in Vietnam has been convicted of posting messages calling for the release of his activist brother. The case marks first time the popular social network has been explicitly named in an indictment, as the communist Southeast Asian regime continues to clamp down on dissent.
Dinh Nhat Uy received a 15-month suspended sentence on Tuesday after a one-day trial in Long An province, southern Vietnam, but still faces effective house arrest and severe restrictions on movement for around two years. “As for the verdict, I think it is absurd and I have decided to appeal,” the 30-year-old told Radio Free Asia after the verdict.
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Uy, who has been in detention since June, was convicted under Article 258 of the penal code that prohibits “abusing democratic freedoms against the interests of the state” and carries a maximum penalty of seven years in prison. His brother, blogger Dinh Nguyen Kha, is currently serving four years in jail for distributing leaflets criticizing the Hanoi government’s stance on the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
Press-freedom advocates Reporters Without Borders described Uy’s trial as “bogus” and decried “the presence of 400 plainclothes police in the courtroom to create the illusion of a public hearing.” The harassment led one of Uy’s lawyers to withdraw from the case, said the group, while around 30 outspoken dissidents who drove from Ho Chi Minh City to show their support were reportedly arrested outside the court building.
Vietnam ranks 172 out of 179 nations in the 2013 Reporters Without Borders press-freedom index, but is running for a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council in elections slated for Nov. 12. Council members are supposed to “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights,” a proposition laughed off by rights groups in relation to Vietnam.
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“Convicting Dinh Nhat Uy for demanding the release of his imprisoned brother and criticizing the government is an outrage, especially since the government is seeking a seat on the U.N.’s highest human-rights body,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
Vietnam has more than 10 million Facebook users and the targeting of online social network is a worry for netizens. In September, Vietnam introduced Decree 72, the Internet law that bans bloggers and social-media users from posting even official news stories online. Although no one has yet been charged under that law, which experts say would be tricky to enforce given the huge volume of online traffic, the move has been deemed the latest element in a sustained crackdown on dissent.
Long-standing social and political problems such as inflation, land-rights abuses and rampant corruption have prompted activists to speak out against a Community Party that they believe has lost touch with the people.
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