Reporters Without Borders condemned a 19-month prison sentence against cyberdissident Pham Que Duong, aged 73, for "abusing democratic rights to harm the interests of the State".
The international press freedom organisation said the sentence against him, handed down on 14 July, was designed to justify the more than 18 months he had already spent in custody. He should be released at the end of July.
The charge sheet specified that he had transmitted "libellous and baseless documents and information to certain elements abroad, which had damaged the standing of the Vietnamese State".
The official Vietnamese News Agency said the court had decided to lighten the sentence against the dissident because of his age and his "contribution to the revolution". Pham Que Duong is a former colonel in the People’s Liberation Army.
Tran Khue to be released shortly
A Vietnamese court on 9 July sentenced cyberdissident Tran Khue to 19 months in prison for "abusing democratic rights with the intention of harming the security of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam".
Since he has already served this time in jail awaiting trial, following his arrest in December 2002, he should be released in the next few weeks.
Reporters Without Borders welcomed Tran Khue’s imminent release but said the verdict had been completely unjustified.
Tran Khue had no lawyer in court to represent him but members of his family attended the trial. He spoke during the trial to deny the charges against him.
Another cyberdissident, Le Chi Quang, was released on 14 June. Apart from Tran Khue and Pham Que Duong - who is to be tried on 14 July - four more Vietnamese are still in prison for posting articles critical of the government on the Internet.
Nguyen Vu Binh, former journalist on Tap Chi Cong San (communist party magazine) who was arrested on 25 September 2002.
Pham Hong Son, marketing director of a pharmaceutical company arrested on 27 March 2002.
Nguyen Dan Que, an intellectual arrested on 17 March 2003.
Nguyen Khac Toan, a businessman and former army officer arrested on 8 January 2002.
A mockery of justice for cyberdissidents
Reporters Without Borders has slammed the forthcoming trials of cyberdissidents Tran Khue and Pham Que Duong on 9 and 14 July respectively as a mockery of justice.
The two men, who have been imprisoned without trial since December 2002 for articles posted on the Internet, are both charged with "abuse of democratic rights with the aim of harming the interests of the State".
"The verdicts have been fixed before the two intellectuals even go before the judges. The Vietnamese authorities are holding these trials to give an illusion of a state of law. In truth justice is in thrall to the authorities and those defending them gagged," said the organisation.
The charges have been read to the lawyers and the defendants, but they have been given nothing in writing, for fear that the charge sheet could be posted on the Internet. Charges against Tran Khue and Pham Que Duong have been amended during their time in custody, which has lasted more than a year and a half.
Initially accused espionage, they were in danger of life sentences. A few days before the trial, this charge was dropped and replaced with "abuse of democratic rights with the aim of harming the interests of the State and the rights and interests of its organisations and its citizens", which carries a maximum penalty of three years imprisonment.
Sources contacted by Reporters Without Borders said their lawyers had reportedly been told their presence was not required at the hearings. As a result Tran Khue will have no legal representation during his trial.
Political trials in Vietnam
In general only lawyers and one family member are allowed to attend trials, with plain-clothes police taking up the rest of the seats. Foreign observers are never allowed in. Trials generally last three to four hours during which time defence lawyers are given a short time to speak.
It is very difficult to find lawyers willing to represent prisoners of opinion. Tran Khue and Pham Que Duong therefore have the same three representatives - two of whom have moreover officially retired. Dates of trials are often announced just a few days before the hearing, with the aim of avoiding significant reactions from the international community. During their detention, prisoners of opinion are called on to officially acknowledge their crimes in exchange for a reduced sentence.
Tran Khue, professor of literature and founder of an organisation against corruption, was arrested on 29 December 2002, in Ho Chi Minh City. Placed under house arrest in March 2002, he posted articles and open letters on the Internet. He is accused of having put out news and information critical of the government. In a letter to former Chinese president, Jiang Zemin and posted on the Web, Tran Khue called for re-examination of part of the Sino-Vietnamese border agreements.
Pham Que Duong was arrested on 28 December 2002 after meeting Tran Khue in Ho Chi Minh City. In March 2002, he put forward his candidacy for legislative elections in the Hanoi constituency, but the authorities rejected it. A former colonel in the liberation army and well respected by former combatants, he also belonged to the anti-corruption organisation founded by Tran Khue. He is accused of having links with "reactionary" organisations abroad and receiving and sending articles hostile to the communist regime on the Internet.