A prominent Vietnamese blogger and his assistant were sentenced to prison by a Hanoi court Wednesday in one of the communist state's highest-profile cases against dissidents in recent years.
Activist blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh, also known by his pen name Anh Ba Sam, was sentenced to five years while his assistant Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy received three for “abusing freedom and democracy to infringe upon the interests of the state,” in the words of the relevant legislation.
Both have been held in pretrial detention since their arrests in May 2014, and will receive time served, meaning Vinh is due to be released in just over three years' time.
Other dissidents and foreign critics accuse the government of punishing Vinh for sharing pro-democracy viewpoints on his blog, which served as a news aggregator for both state media and activist bloggers.
“It’s a very broadly and vaguely worded provision," blogger and activist Pham Doan Trang said of the law used against the men, article 258 of the criminal code. "It means anyone can be accused of using democratic freedoms to infringe on the interests of the state," she told dpa.
Ha Huy Son, who served as Vinh's lawyer, told dpa that the verdict was "unfair."
"The court used different evidence during the trial from the evidence used to convict them," he said, adding that the pair maintained their innocence.
Dozens of protesters across the street from the courthouse were met with a heavy police presence during the trial, but demonstrators mostly ignored authorities’ demands to disperse. At least two were arrested.
“If they dare to arrest me, no problem because I can face the risk,” one friend of Vinh, activist blogger Anh Chi, said outside the courthouse.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said none of the content on Vinh’s blog warranted state intervention.
“By hauling blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh into court on this bogus charge, Vietnam just shows how intolerant it is of independent voices challenging the government's biased view of reality,” he told dpa.
Vietnam is consistently ranked one of the least free countries in the world. In Reporters Without Borders’ 2015 World Press Freedom Index, Vietnam had the world’s sixth least free press.