A court in southern Vietnam has upheld the sentence of outspoken activist and anti-China protester Bui Thi Minh Hang and two others in the latest crackdown on dissent.
The results of the appeal trial in Dong Thap province in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta Friday came as “no surprise”, observers said.
Hang was sentenced to three years in prison in August for disrupting public order by creating “serious obstruction to traffic.” Two other activists also received jail time. Nguyen Thi Thuy Quynh was jailed for two years and Hoa Hao Buddhist Nguyen Van Minh for two and a half years.
The three were among 21 people arrested in February as they rode motorbikes from Ho Chi Minh City to Dong Thap province to visit a former political prisoner. The others in the group were released the next day.
Hang’s son, Tran Bui Trung, said 19 people who went to the court to show their support for his mother were detained by police.
He says there is no news yet on what has happened to them.
Dressed in an ao dai - a traditional Vietnamese dress - and passionately shouting slogans, Hang was a well known face at anti-China protests in the capital. She was also known as an advocate for human rights in the country, posting photos and links on her Facebook page to cases of alleged abuse across a range of issues, from land rights to religious and political freedom.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch described Hang as a “thorn in the side of the Vietnamese government" and said he was not surprised the sentences were upheld.
“In our analysis of people who get reduced sentences on appeal, these are the sort of people the government decides are being contrite, admitting to doing something wrong, are prepared to work with the authorities, in those cases you’ll sometimes see a reduction in sentence," Robertson noted.
He says by using charges of “disrupting public order,” authorities could be trying to taint Hang’s reputation.
“They perhaps believe that this gives them some kind of leverage to say that she’s nothing more than a common criminal," Robertson said. " It’s quite different from charging her with Article 258 or something like that where it’s clearly a rights-related crime. This is part of the game to manage the appearances of the situation.”
Also in the last few weeks two bloggers have been charged for “abusing freedom and democracy to infringe upon the interests of the state” under Article 258 of the Penal Code.
Novelist and writer Nguyen Quang Lap, who writes the “Que Choa” blog, was arrested Saturday. Ten days earlier, Hong Le Tho, author of the blog “Nguoi Lot Gach,” which means “Bricklayer,” was also arrested.
Robertson said the arrests show the “sporadic and arbitrary” approach of authorities in cracking down on dissent.
“That way they have flexibility to be ‘tough guys’ and act like they are respecting international law and maybe when people aren’t looking they can come down hard again," he said.
In 2011 Hang was sent to a re-education center for two years of administrative detention, but was released months later following an international outcry.
Human Rights Watch says at least 63 people were imprisoned for peaceful political expression in Vietnam in 2013. The government says only those who break the law have been jailed, not people who peacefully express their views.