A court in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City on Friday sentenced war veteran and democracy activist Tran Van Bang to eight years in prison and three years probation for Facebook posts that were deemed to be anti-state propaganda in a trial that lasted less than three hours.
Tran Van Bang, better known as Tran Bang, is a 62-year-old war veteran who fought during the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War. He had regularly participated in demonstrations against China for its controversial claims over territories in the South China Sea.
He was arrested in March 2022 for what was initially determined to be 31 Facebook posts between March 2016 and August 2021.
After a subsequent investigation, authorities found that he wrote 39 problematic posts between three Facebook accounts that that were seen as “distorting, defaming and speaking badly of the people’s government; providing false information, causing confusion among the people; and expressing hate and discontent towards the authorities, Party, State, and country’s leaders,” the Tuoi Tre newspaper reported, citing the indictment.
The posts were in violation of article 117 of the penal code, a vague law that the government has often used to silence dissent.
It was the latest conviction in Hanoi’s ongoing campaign to silence bloggers and activists. Vietnam has convicted at least 60 such people under the same article and sentenced them between four and 15 years in prison, and 13 others to between four and 12 years under the older article 88, because it was the law when the alleged crime occurred, New York-based Human Rights Watch reported.
During Friday’s trial, Bang claimed that his Facebook accounts had been hacked and he hadn’t used them in a very long time.
But the Procuracy rejected the explanation, and used the posts on the accounts to convict him.
Tran Dinh Dung, Bang’s defense lawyer, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service following the trial that freedom of speech is guaranteed in Article 25 of Vietnam’s constitution, and Article 117 does not explain anti-state propaganda.
“The current law fails to clarify what freedom of speech is and what anti-state propaganda is,” said Dung. “In addition, there are some electronic documents and evidence missing, so I requested that the file of the case should be returned to the procuracy and a verdict should only be made when everything was clarified.”
Two diplomats, from the U.S. and France, were barred from attending the proceedings. They were made to wait in the courtyard until the trial’s conclusion.
Family members, meanwhile, were allowed only to watch the proceedings on a television screen from another room in the courthouse.
Bang’s brother, who declined to be named, told RFA that the audio of the broadcast was cut several times when the defense lawyer was speaking and was turned very low when Bang spoke in his own defense.
“The lawyer requested an additional investigation as some assessments of the investigator about the Facebook stories, which were the ground for accusations, were wrong,” Bang’s brother said.
“The lawyer also said that the accusation grounds were just the investigator’s viewpoint, and with another viewpoint, other people may find my brother innocent.”
According to Dung, his client will appeal the verdict. He told the judging panel that Bang was suffering from a serious health issue as he had a tumor in the groin area, which had not been determined benign or malignant. The verdict noted this information but also said that it needed to wait for the opinion of Bang’s detention center clinics, Dung said.
“On May 10, I had a working session with the detention center, and they told me that their clinic had recommended removing the tumor,” said Dung, adding that red tape is preventing the operation. “If the tumor is malignant, i.e. cancer, it would be a very serious health issue.”
Human Rights Watch on Thursday issued a media release calling on the Vietnamese government to drop all charges against Bang and immediately release him.
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