|Clockwise from top left, young VietnameseCatholic activists Chu Manh Son, Dau Van Duong, Hoang Phong, and Tran Huu Duc, in undated photos.|
HANOI - Four Vietnamese Catholic students have been jailed for up to three-and-a-half years for conducting “anti-state propaganda", a lawyer for two of them said Thursday.
Human rights campaigners slammed the ruling, saying dozens of peaceful political activists have been sentenced to long prison terms since Vietnam, a one-party state, launched a crackdown on free expression in late 2009.
The students, aged between 22 and 25, from a small Catholic community in central Nghe An province, were arrested last year for distributing pro-democracy leaflets and for criticizing the Communist Party. They were charged under Article 88 of the penal code, which rights groups say is often used by the Vietnamese authorities to arbitrarily imprison bloggers, legal advocates, and other critics of the state .
After a half-day hearing, a court in Nghe An handed jail terms of three years and six months to Dau Van Duong, three years and three months to Tran Huu Duc and three years to Chu Manh Son, lawyer Tran Thu Nam told AFP.
They will be placed under house arrest for up to 18 months afterwards, said Nam, who represented two of the men.
The fourth defendant, Nguyen Hoang Phong, was given a suspended prison sentence of 18 months.
Deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson, blasted the sentences, saying: “It’s outrageous the Vietnam government has again defied its international commitments to protect free speech and freedom of religion.
“The multi-year sentences meted out by Vietnam’s government-controlled courts against these four young Catholic activists should be overturned, and these men should all be unconditionally released.
“Once again justice is failing Vietnam, as more citizens exercising their rights are railroaded into prison by Vietnam’s government for actions that should not be considered crimes.”
Vietnam, which has a population of about 86 million, is a majority Buddhist nation where the government says it always respects freedom of belief and religion.
But religious activity remains under state control and some groups have complained of ill-treatment, with dozens of Catholic bloggers and activists in detention pending investigation or awaiting trial.