A court in Vietnam has sentenced six members of an independent religious group to long prison terms following a two-day trial in which defendants said they had been forced to confess to the charges made against them, drawing condemnation from rights groups on Friday.
Convicted by the People’s Court of Duc Hoa District in southern Vietnam’s Long An province, the members of the unofficial Peng Lai Temple were charged with “abusing the rights to freedom and democracy” and will now serve sentences of from three and a half to five years.
Handed the harshest sentence on Thursday, temple member Le Tung Van was given a five-year term, with Le Thanh Hoan Nguyen, Le Thanh Nhat Nguyen and Le Thanh Trung Duong each sentenced to four-year terms. Le Thanh Nhi Nguyen was sentenced to three and a half years, and Cao Thi Cuc given a three-year term.
All had been charged under Article 331 of Vietnam’s 2015 Penal Code.
Speaking to RFA after the trial, a human rights lawyer in Vietnam called the case against the six temple members politically motivated.
“These verdicts did not surprise me at all, because the nature of the case was political,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity out of concern for his personal safety.
“Right from the beginning, state media had deliberately published information aimed at slandering the Peng Lai Temple members, accusing them of incestuous relationships and of committing fraud,” the lawyer said.
“[Vietnam’s] press law clearly stipulates that the media are not allowed to make accusations on behalf of the court or the judging panel.”
The accusations made by state-controlled news outlets had nothing to do with the charge of “abusing the rights to freedom and democracy” on which the defendants were convicted, the lawyer said.
“The government of Vietnam is showing that they don’t understand what freedom of religion is and that they are willing to crack down on any religious groups that they can’t control through their licensing system,” he added.
State prosecutors in their indictment had specifically charged group members with posting articles and video clips on Facebook and YouTube aimed at harming the reputation of Duc Hoa district police and “offending the honor and dignity” of Tran Ngoc Thao, also called Venerable Thich Nhat Tu, a local Buddhist leader.
Threats and torture
However, confessions made to the charges and used against group members at their trial were obtained by threats and torture, three of the six defendants said in court on July 20.
“During the investigation, a Duc Hoa district police officer named Phong slapped me three times against the side of my head and put me in handcuffs, closing them so tightly that it cut off the circulation of my blood,” Le Thanh Trung Duong said.
“I almost passed out, and then I was threatened by an officer named Phap, and that’s why I made false statements,” Duong said.
Defendant Le Thanh Nhat Nguyen said in court that he had also been beaten by police during his pre-trial investigation. “But after our lawyers got involved, I wasn’t beaten any more. Therefore, I would like to ask that this investigation be conducted all over again,” he said.
Replying to defendants’ accusations at the trial, a representative from the Long An Police Investigations Department said that the interrogation of members of the Peng Lai group had been conducted in accordance with the law, and that audio and video recordings of the questioning had been kept.
In a statement, Human Rights Watch Asia deputy director Phil Robertson said that Vietnam's government is now widening its rights crackdown by silencing ordinary people who complain about local officials.
"All this shows how intolerance for any sort of public criticism is getting worse in Vietnam. Vietnam should reverse these outrageous and unacceptable sentences against all of these persons," Robertson said.
Vietnam’s government strictly controls religious practice in the one-party communist country, requiring practitioners to join state-approved temples and churches and suppressing independent groups.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in a report released April 25 recommended the U.S. government place Vietnam on a list of countries of particular concern because of Vietnamese authorities’ persistent violations of religious freedom.
Translated by Anna Vu for RFA Vietnamese. Written in English by Richard Finney.