Friday, March 30, 2007

HUE, Vietnam — A court sentenced a dissident Catholic priest to eight years in prison yesterday for anti-government activities after a dramatic trial in which the defendant shouted denunciations of the ruling Communist Party.

A judge at Thua Thien Hue Provincial People’s Court in central Vietnam sentenced the Rev. Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly on charges of disseminating anti-government documents and communicating with pro-democracy activists overseas. It was the first time the government has opened a high-profile dissident’s trial to reporters.

Authorities said Father Ly, 60 — who has been jailed twice before for his pro-democracy activities — was plotting to merge his Vietnam Progression Party with overseas democracy activists.

Father Ly was brought handcuffed into the courtroom along with four co-defendants at the start of the trial. He began to shout about Vietnam’s Communist Party, but a police officer quickly covered his mouth and removed him to a nearby room where the proceedings were broadcast on a loudspeaker.

Father Ly was later brought back, but he refused to answer prosecutors’ charges against him, declaring, “The communists use the law of the jungle” before being removed again.

In sentencing, Judge Bui Quoc Hiep said Father Ly deserved “severe punishment” for masterminding efforts to boycott Vietnam’s upcoming legislative elections, establish unsanctioned political parties and overthrow the government.

Judge Hiep said the priest and his co-defendants had committed “very serious crimes that harmed national security.”

Prosecutors said Father Ly was the mastermind of Bloc 8406, an organization that circulated pro-democracy petitions last year.

Authorities allowed limited press coverage of the trial, a highly unusual move in a country where judicial proceedings against political defendants are typically conducted behind closed doors. About a dozen reporters and foreign diplomats watched the proceedings on a closed-circuit television in a separate room of the courthouse.

The sound was cut briefly when Father Ly shouted.

Last month, authorities moved Father Ly from his home in the city of Hue, where he was under virtual house arrest, and took him to a smaller parish outside the city.

They seized hundreds of documents, six computers and 136 mobile phone cards, and much of that evidence was on display at the front of the courtroom yesterday.

The court sentenced four co-defendants who were accused of being Father Ly’s accomplices. The defendants were not represented by a lawyer.

Nguyen Phong, 32, of Hue, was sentenced to six years in prison; Nguyen Binh Thanh, 51, of Hue, was sentenced to five years; Le Thi Le Hang, 44, of Hue, got a two-year, suspended sentence; and Hoang Thi Anh Dao, 21, of Gialai province, got an 18-month suspended sentence.

Mr. Phong acknowledged in court that he had written the political platforms for Bloc 8406 and the Vietnam Progression Party, but said his actions did not constitute a crime.

“For the motherland of Vietnam, I will continue to fight for democratic values,” he said.

At that point, police swiftly removed the defendants from the courtroom and the judge left to decide their sentences.

Father Ly was not present in the courtroom when the sentences were read.

The priest’s arrest occurred as Vietnamese authorities were cracking down on dissidents. On March 6, they arrested Hanoi human rights lawyers Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thi Cong Nhan, accusing them of violating a prohibition on distributing information deemed harmful to the state.

After the sentencing, Kenneth Chern of the U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City, read a statement expressing U.S. concern over Vietnam’s recent actions against dissidents.

“We call upon the Vietnamese government to allow individuals to peacefully exercise their legitimate rights to freedom of speech without fear of recrimination,” he said.

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