Vietnam Sentences Rights Lawyer to 30-Month Prison Term

A court in Vietnam on Wednesday convicted and sentenced prominent dissident Le Quoc Quan to 30 months in prison on tax evasion charges, which were rejected by the outspoken lawyer who said he would not be cowed into silence by the country’s authoritarian leaders.

Quan, a popular blogger and human rights advocate, “protested and denied the indictment read by the prosecutor’s office at the trial,” saying there were many “inaccuracies,” his lawyer Ha Huy Son told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.

He said that his client was also heavily fined by the Hanoi People’s Court as part of his punishment for the tax evasion conviction, which carried a maximum seven-year jail term.

Presiding Judge Le Thi Hop gave Quan “a sentence of 30 months in prison and his company had to pay an evaded tax value of 645 million dong (U.S. $30,000) and a fine of double that amount,” Son said after the verdict was announced.

International rights groups say the tax charges are part of a government campaign against Quan while the critic said he was a victim of a political vendetta.

“I am the victim of political acts,” Agence France-Presse quoted Quan as saying to the court on Wednesday, adding that he had not been allowed to see the evidence against him.

“I will continue my fight against corruption, attacking bureaucracy and stagnancy that are undermining our country,” he said.

Lawyer Son said that Quan’s tax accountant, Pham Thi Phuong, who was also arrested on tax evasion charges along with Quan in December 2012, was ordered jailed for eight months.

“The prosecutor, court, and investigative police agreed on everything. They would not accept any argument from his lawyers. Any error [by the prosecution] was said to be a typo,” he said.

Trial protest

Security was tight around the courthouse during the trial and announcement of the verdict, with police shutting down all roads leading to an area up to 1 kilometer (half of a mile) away from the building.

Hundreds of supporters, including Quan’s family and friends, attempted to reach the court building Wednesday in a rare protest, chanting, “Down with the unfair trial” and “Lawyer Le Quoc Quan is innocent.”

Observers said that only one employee of Vietnam Solutions Ltd.—where Quan held the position of director—received an invitation from authorities to the proceedings.

Quan’s wife, Nguyen Thi Thu Hien, told RFA that she was refused entry to the trial until two hours after it began at 8:00 a.m. She was eventually permitted to enter, along with a local church leader.

His elderly mother said that “no matter how much we asked,” court authorities would not allow her access to the court, even though she had not seen her son for nearly a year, adding that Quan’s other family members and a trial observer were also refused entry.

Turned away

A protester from Quan’s hometown in Nghe An province, located some 150 miles (230 kilometers) south of Hanoi, told RFA that he was among a group of supporters who were blocked from accessing the courthouse at around 6:30 a.m.

The crowd of protesters included evicted farmers from the Duong Noi district of Hanoi, residents of Bac Giang—about 100 kilometers (60 miles) northeast of the capital—priests and monks, and even some ethnic minorities, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Another supporter, who declined to give his name, said that the group was frustrated by the authorities’ decision to prevent them from attending what was advertised as an open trial.

“Though it was very difficult, because of our love for Le Quoc Quan and our desire to know the truth, we went regardless of how they intended to suppress us—crackdown, beating, or arrest,” the supporter said.

“We wanted to attend the trial because, according to the information in the state media, it was an open trial. This was not an open trial.”

Widespread condemnation

Wednesday’s verdict prompted a critical statement from Washington, which accused the Vietnamese government of attempting to silence Quan through the use of politically motivated charges.

Quan was arrested in December 2012, days after writing an article criticizing Article 4 of Vietnam’s constitution, which gives the Communist Party the leading role in the country’s affairs. He had previously blogged prolifically about human rights, democracy, religious freedom, and other issues.

The trial for Quan—who was also active in protests over China’s actions over disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea—was first set for July but the presiding judge “fell sick suddenly and had to be hospitalized,” rescheduling it for Wednesday.

The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi said in a statement on its website that Washington was “deeply concerned by the Vietnamese government’s conviction and sentencing,” adding that “the use of tax laws by Vietnamese authorities to imprison government critics for peacefully expressing their political views is disturbing.”

The statement said that the conviction appeared inconsistent with the right to freedom of expression and Vietnam’s obligations under international human rights conventions, and called on the government to release all prisoners of conscience.

‘Trumped-up charges’

Quan’s sentence also drew condemnation on Wednesday from banned opposition group Viet Tan and France-based Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR), both of which said that the outspoken lawyer had been targeted because of his activism.

Viet Tan said in a statement that Vietnam’s leadership “is so worried about popular opposition that it convicted Le Quoc Quan in a closed trial on trumped-up charges,” adding that while the authorities could jail Quan, “they cannot silence his ideals.”

The group said the trial was “packed with regime stooges” and vowed that Quan’s supporters would “redouble our efforts to demand his unconditional freedom.”

VCHR President Vo Van Ai said in a separate statement that Quan’s “unjust sentence” had an “air of déjà-vu,” referring to blogger Nguyen Van Hai—also known as Dieu Cay—who was sentenced to 30 months in prison in 2008 on a tax evasion conviction.

Hai was later handed a 12-year jail term, on the day of his expected release, for “conducting propaganda against the state.”

“[Quan’s] spurious sentence proves without doubt that Vietnam is unfit to obtain a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council,” Ai added.

“[It] is part of an ongoing crackdown on freedom of expression, both offline and online.”

The VCHR recorded 51 cases of dissident arrests in 2013, the majority of whom were pro-democracy bloggers.

Reported by An Nguyen for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.