01/08/2013, 00.00
VIETNAM
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As more people are arrested and tortured, police jam-packs courtroom in trial of 14 Catholic activists

by Joseph Dang
The trial was supposed to be open to the public but the courtroom was instead filled with police agents. The defendants, plus three Protestants, are accused of subversion for reporting misdeeds by party officials. Justice and Peace Committee calls the trial a sham. Vinh bishop and dozens of intellectuals call on the authorities to respect human rights. For them, the government is betraying the Vietnamese constitution and the UN Convention on Civil and Political Rights. Defendants' lawyers complain that their clients have been subjected to torture, including sleep deprivation, and false statements.

Hanoi (AsiaNews) - The trial of 14 Catholic activists charged with subversion was held today in Nghe An, near to Vinh city. Contrary to what the authorities had announced, only a few visitors were able to enter the courtroom. Most of the seats were taken instead by police agents deployed to prevent demonstrations. In view of the charges, the defendants could get the death penalty. The verdict however will be read tomorrow or later.

Set to take place on 6 January, the trial was postponed because of the holiday. The authorities were concerned that Catholics could use the Mass to urge people to demonstrate in front of the courthouse.

Still, at daybreak this morning, thousands of Catholics from the parishes of Yen Dai and Nghi Loc showed up to walk to the courthouse led by Fr Nguyen Dinh Thuc, planning to hold the authorities to their word that the trial would free and open. However, one kilometre from the building, they were stopped by police and hooligans. Three Catholics were seriously beaten and later arrested.

Forced to stay away from the courthouse, the marchers began reciting the rosary, holding up placards that said: 'We protest against the arbitrary and illegal arrests of innocent people' and 'My brothers and sisters are innocent'.

In fact, all that the 14 Catholics, and three Protestants, did was to report stories and criticism about corrupt party members and government officials who enriched themselves during the financial crisis. In trying them, the authorities appear bent on squashing the story.

In order to counter possible criticism against the government, state media reported that all of those arrested, except for Paul Le Son, a Catholic journalist, had confessed to their crimes and asked for forgiveness.

However, the defendants' lawyers told AsiaNews that none of the prisoners had made a confession. Instead, they accused police of using torture, including sleep deprivation, and making false statements to implicate the accused.

For the Justice and Peace Committee of the Diocese of Vinh, the trial violates the law. In a public statement issued on 1 January, World Peace Day, it said that "public opinion is dissatisfied and agitated by the fact that a government subject to the rule of law can arbitrarily arrest its citizens on trumped-up charges. In doing so, it risks losing legitimacy, making people feel insecure because it goes against international law as well as the constitution and laws of Vietnam."

"Once again, we call on the government and on everyone to defend human rights in accordance with the Constitution of Vietnam and international agreements that Vietnam has signed. We call for the release of the innocent and for changes to laws that are against the constitution and against the sacred, fundamental and indisputable rights of human beings. Only this way will the people of Vietnam work towards the prosperity of the nation, and the world not show disdain for Vietnam's violations of human rights, so that people can truly live in peace."

On Christmas day, Vinh Bishop Mgr Nguyen Thai Hop spoke about the issue. Along with a number of intellectuals and community leaders, he signed an 'Appeal to defend human rights in Vietnam.'

In the petition, the signatories call on Vietnam's National Assembly to repeal Article 88 of the  Vietnam Penal Code, which criminalises "spreading propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam," and Government Decree No. 38/2005/NĐ-CP of 18 March 2005, which regulars "measures to ensure public order".

According to international and local observers, Article 88 is too vague. With the excuse of fighting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, it limits freedom of speech and expression, which are recognised and guaranteed by Vietnam's constitution and the United Nations Convention on Civil and Political Rights.

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