The lawyer, who also represents others unfairly deprived of their property or victims of abuse, is in charge of the appeal made by the Thai Ha parishioners convicted of causing “damages to state property” and “disorderly conduct”. These charges were originally laid because the eight people involved had taken part in prayer vigils in favour of justice and the return of land taken from their parish and had sued state media for false reporting on their trial when they were wrongly quoted as admitting their guilt when in fact they had instead proclaimed their innocence loud and clear.
As a result of his involvement in the case Mr Luat has had to endure months of harassment. The latest episode occurred last Tuesday in Ho Chi Minh City when he had his licence to practice taken whilst a smear campaign by the press continued to raise doubts about his honesty and professional competence.
However, this was but one incident in a series. On 24 February for example, an article appeared in Ho Chi Minh City’s Police newspaper, Bao Công An Thanh Phô Hô Chi Minh, claiming that several of Luat’s clients had complained about him, and accused him of making money fraudulently.
The next day police raided his Ho Chi Minh City offices, seizing computers and documents without any explanation.
On 4 March, one of Mr Luat’s aides, Ta Phong Tan, was detained by plainclothes policemen and taken to an office where she was subjected to hours of questioning.
On 12 March Luat himself was detained and interrogated just as he was getting ready to fly to Hanoi to appear in court on behalf of the eight Thai Ha defendants. Three days later he was detained again and forced to attend a ‘work session’.
Throughout this period, as the press attacked him, Mr Luat, his family and aides had to endure threatening phone calls.
Even his clients have been pressured to withdraw their cases from his care.
Last week Hanoi court officials contacted the defendants to inform them that Mr Luat might not be able to act as their legal counsel because the Ho Chi Minh City Police Department was preventing him from travelling to Hanoi.
“Recently we have learned that our attorney, Mr Le Tran Luat, was prevented by Ho Chi Minh City's police from flying to Hanoi to provide us with legal counsel,” the defendants said.
“We turned to the Hanoi People's Court, the Department of Public Security, and Ho Chi Minh City's Police Department to provide him assistance, making it possible for him to arrive in Hanoi to provide us counsel in our appeal hearing on Mar 27, 2009, thus securing our right to legal representation in accordance with due process.”
Last Monday five of the defendants went to court in person, insisting on their right to have Mr Luat as their legal counsel, which includes two other lawyers.
Another defendant said that Mr Luat is his only defence attorney.
The authorities’ campaign of intimidation and abuse has had one unexpected consequence for Catholics. The number of people flocking to prayer vigils held on behalf of the defendants and their lawyers in Hanoi, Vinh, Ho Chi Minh City and other provinces has increased.