A court in Vietnam on Wednesday sentenced two land rights activists to a total of 16 years in prison for speaking out against a deadly police assault last year against villagers living on disputed land outside of Hanoi.
Trinh Ba Phuong and Nguyen Thi Tam were convicted in a four-hour trial Wednesday morning. Phuong received a 10-year prison term with five years’ probation, and Tam was handed a term of six years in prison with three years’ probation.
They had been charged with “creating, storing, disseminating or propagandizing information, materials, publications and items against the State.”
Phuong and Tam were arrested on June 24, 2020, after they spoke out on social media about the Jan. 9, 2020, clash at Dong Tam commune in which 3,000 police stormed protesters’ homes at a construction site outside the capital, killing a village elder.
Defense lawyer Nguyen Van Mieng told RFA that the sentence given to Phuong was unexpectedly harsh.
“A sentence of six years was what we were expecting. So, the 10-year prison term Phuong received was given as a kind of revenge, since they saw him a real thorn in their side,” Mieng said.
He said that Phuong had shown great strength throughout his trial.
“He had the spirit of an orator and showed his mettle and courage, but not by cursing the court. His mother Tam was calm, in the manner of a farmer, and did not offend the panel of judges at all,” he said.
Defense lawyer Le Van Luan told RFA that Phuong eloquently advocated for democracy in Vietnam in his statements to the court.
“I don’t feel any guilt before my country and our people,” Phuong said, according to Luan.
“I am fighting so that no piece of land in our country will ever be stolen, so that no one will ever have to leave the country to earn their living as a guest worker, and so that we can have free elections and our people can live a more civilized life.”
Family members briefly detained
No relatives of the two activists were allowed to attend their trial, and police detained three family members who stood outside the court building, asking to come in.
The three family members — Phuong’s father Trinh Ba Khiem and wife Do Thi Thu, and Tam’s daughter Nguyen Than Mai — were released when the trial ended at noon.
Phuong’s younger sister said that when family members arrived at the court and asked to be admitted, they found the front gate blocked.
“Then everyone was shoved into two cars and taken away,” she told RFA. “I don’t know where they were taken, and I myself wasn’t arrested since I was standing a little distance away.”
Authorities had earlier barricaded family members’ homes to stop them from trying to attend, Thao said, calling the move “a dirty trick.”
“They stopped Thu and me from leaving our house by blocking our exit, saying they had to lock down our alley because they had found suspected COVID cases there. But we found a way around this to escape,” she said.
Tam’s family meanwhile posted on their Facebook page a photo from their home camera system showing their house had been watched by police since early morning.
While all land in Vietnam is ultimately held by the state, land confiscations have become a flashpoint as residents accuse the government of pushing small landholders aside in favor of lucrative real estate projects, and of paying too little in compensation to farming families displaced by development.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Anna Vu. Written in English by Richard Finney.