Vietnamese activist sentenced to seven years for protest over Formosa spill

Nguyen Van Hoa will also have to purge three additional years under house arrest. The court convicted him of anti-state propaganda after trying him in camera without a lawyer. International NGOs slam Hanoi for the "disproportionate" punishment. Scores of prisoners of conscience languish in the country’s prisons.

Hanoi (AsiaNews/RFA) – A court in Vietnam sentenced blogger activist Nguyen Van Hoa to seven years in prison Monday for “conducting propaganda against the state,” claiming that he had tried to incite protests over the government’s handling of the devastating toxic waste spill by the Formosa Plastics Group in Ha Tinh province.

The incident, which occurred in April 2016, killed about 115 tonnes of fish and wiped out the fishing and tourism industries in four provinces.

The Taiwan-based company offered to pay US $ 500 million to settle the case and compensate people affected by loss; however, the government cracked down harshly on street protest against the amount and the slow pace of compensation.

Nguyen Van Hoa, 22, led the protests. He was arrested by police on 11 January along with many other activists before the start of Tet (Vietnamese New Year) but news about his arrest was reported only on 3 February.

The People’s Court in Ha Tinh province found Hoa guilty of violating Article 88 of Vietnam’s Penal Code in a trial that lasted two-and-a-half hour and ruled that he be placed under house arrest for three years after his jail term is complete.

Hoa’s hearing had initially been scheduled for today, but the proceedings were moved up unexpectedly. No attorney was present to represent him.

Attempts to reach Hoa’s family members for comment after the trial went unanswered.

State media reported Monday that Hoa had produced video, photos, and articles about the incident involving Formosa Plastics Group for the purpose of “propagating against, distorting and defaming the government.”

They also claimed that Hoa had “received money” from “extremists and hostile forces” to cause public disorder. However, people close to the accused rejected the charges as baseless.

Rights lawyer Le Cong Dinh called the ruling against Hoa a “predetermined judgment that was completely predictable.”

He condemned what he said was “a secret trial,” saying the court had “tricked people” into thinking that the hearing would take place today when in fact it was held yesterday.

“Under Vietnamese law, the defendant has the right to refuse a lawyer,” he said.

The court ruling drew condemnation from many human rights groups, like Reporters Without Borders (RSF), with the head of its Asia-Pacific desk, Daniel Bastard, calling it “totally disproportionate”.

Vietnam is currently holding at least 84 prisoners of conscience, the highest number in any country in Southeast Asia, according to rights group Amnesty International.

RSF ranked Vietnam 175th out of 180 countries in its 2017 World Press Freedom Index.