Vietnam jails 13 activists

HANOI - Vietnam on Wednesday jailed 13 activists convicted of plotting to overthrow the communist regime, in a new crackdown criticised by the United States as part of a "disturbing" trend in the authoritarian state.

The accused - including Catholics, bloggers and students - were handed sentences ranging from three to 13 years, defence lawyer Ha Huy Son told AFP.

Another defendant received a three-year suspended sentence, which in Vietnam equates to house arrest. Many of the accused have been held in pre-trial detention for extended periods.

The court in north-central Nghe An province ruled that all of the accused had links to the US-based Viet Tan opposition group, which the communist country considers a terrorist organisation.

The US embassy said it was "deeply troubled" by the sentences, which follow the recent detention of prominent Catholic dissident lawyer Le Quoc Quan as well as the upholding of long jail terms for three high-profile bloggers.

The latest convictions "are part of a disturbing human rights trend in Vietnam," it said in a statement released after the verdict.

"We call on the government to release these individuals and all other prisoners of conscience immediately," the US statement added.

Critics say charges of spreading anti-state propaganda and attempting to overthrow the regime are routinely laid against peaceful dissidents in a country where the Communist Party forbids political debate.

"The court did not have objective evidence to find them guilty of the charge," lawyer Son said.

Viet Tan, which says it is a peaceful pro-democracy group, condemned what it described as the "arbitrary conviction of 14 human rights defenders," and said it would continue to lobby for their release.

Family members expressed dismay at the ruling.

"There was no evidence to charge them. The verdict was illogical," said Dinh Thi Oanh, whose husband Nguyen Xuan Anh was given a three-year sentence.

Rights campaigners say dozens of peaceful political activists have been jailed since Vietnam, a one-party state, began a new crackdown on free expression in late 2009.

"The conviction of yet more peaceful activists is another example of a government that is increasingly afraid of the opinions of its own people," said Brad Adams, Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Last month Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung ordered a new crackdown on online dissent, telling authorities to fight against anyone using the internet to "defame and spread propaganda against the party and state".

In another in a string of convictions, a court in southern Ho Chi Minh City on Tuesday sentenced a 36-year-old woman to three and a half years in jail for "anti-state propaganda".

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Writer: AFP
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