Hanoi (AsiaNews/Agencies) - The week-long trial of 22 activists accused of trying to overthrow the "legitimate" Communist government of Vietnam ended in sentences ranging from ten years to life in prison. For the court appointed defence lawyer, the accused admitted their guilt and the sentences were fair.
The trial is a sign of Hanoi's iron fist approach to religious groups, opponents or simple activists. In the capital, ordinary Catholics and the Catholic Church itself experienced it recently when the capital's Carmelite Monastery was torn down.
Phan Van Thu, leader of an environmental group, was sentenced to life in prison. The other 21 accused were given terms ranging from 10 to 17 years, plus five years under house arrest.
The harsh sentences are indicative of the Communist regime's escalating crackdown against dissidents, a trend that has raised concerns in the international community.
In what amounts to a show trial, the 22 convicted men "admitted their crime of aiming to overthrow the people's administration," said state-appointed defence lawyer Nguyen Huong Que. For the latter, "The sentences are adequate for their crimes".
The 22 belonged to a group called Hoi Dong Cong Luat Cong An Bia Son in Vietnamese, which translates as Council for the Laws and Public Affairs of Bia Son (Phu Yen province).
They were convicted on the basis of Article 79 of the Vietnam Penal Code, which has been used on several occasions against dissidents and pro-democracy advocates, according to activists and legal experts.
Little is known about the group led by 65-year-old Phan Van Thu, other than it supposedly has some 300 members in central and southern Vietnam and that it is "terrorist" as well as "subversive" for the government because it has recruited people for an environmental campaign.
In Vietnam, convicting people on "subversion" charges or for anti-revolutionary activities is routinely used against dissidents or religious groups, as was recently the case.
Earlier this year, the People's court in Nghe An (central Vietnam) convicted 14 Catholics of subversion against the state. All of them could have received the death penalty.
Three of the accused-Hồ Đức Hòa, Đặng Xuân Diệu and Lê Văn Sơn-were sentenced to 13 years in prison. The other eight received terms between three and eight years.
All 14 were accused of belonging to Viet Tan, a non-violent pro democracy group, which the authorities describe as "terrorist".
In fact, "The Vietnam government systematically suppresses freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and persecutes those who question government policies," Human Rights Watch reported last week.