Hanoi (AsiaNews) - After a two-day trial, the People's Court in Nghe An (central Vietnam) convicted all 14 Catholic defendants on charges of subversion against the state. All of them could have received the death penalty. The court instead sentenced three-Hồ Đức Hòa, Đặng Xuân Diệu, Lê Văn Sơn-to 13 years in prison. The other 11 received sentences ranging from three to eight years.
For many Catholic groups in Vietnam, the harsh sentence is intended to limit freedom of expression. In fact, the 14 Catholics were accused of membership in Viet Tan, a non-violent group that supports democracy, which the authorities describe as "terrorist".
People who attended the trial said the defenders told the court that their action was only meant to help people by informing them about corrupt party and government officials who enriched themselves during the recent financial crisis.
For some Catholics, who were not allowed inside the courtroom (pictured), the trial was "immoral".
It is the culmination of a campaign launched by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung against dissidents and bloggers who use the internet to spread their views.
Some suggest that the prime minister has even set quotas for the number of Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, to be arrested in order to strike at the community. Some of the people arrested were apparently picked up randomly by police, some during Mass in church.
The lawyers representing the 14 Catholics on trial complained that their clients were tortured and forced into confessing to crimes they did not commit.
Of the group of 14 on trial, 11 belong to a group that sent an appeal to a United Nations group against arbitrary detention.
Last week, Stanford University Law professor Allan Weiner filed an update on the group's petition to the United Nations, saying their cases highlighted Vietnamese government's "increasing reliance on detention powers as a means of suppressing established international human rights."
Their case shows how conditions for those engaged in non-violent political and social activism in Vietnam are "deteriorating," he added.