A court in Vietnam has convicted four human rights activists of trying to overthrow the hardline communist government. They were sentenced to jail terms of up to sixteen years.
Listen to a Newsline interview with HRW's Brad Adams:
The men wrote weblogs, spoke to human rights groups abroad and organised debates on political change.
Vietnamese authorities said the four were trying to bring an end to communism.
They include two prominent human rights activists. Le Cong Dinh is a US-trained lawyer and Nguyen Tien Trung studied in France and has met former US President George W. Bush and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Despite the high profile character of this case, Western governments are still reluctant to condemn Vietnamese leaders for human rights violations, according to Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch.
Turning a blind eye
The US government has spoken out against the arrest of Le Cong Dinh, but Mr Adams – who heads the Asian branch of the US-based human rights organisation - says Western governments generally turn a blind eye to the Vietnamese situation because of its war-ridden past:
“There’s a lot of guilt in the West about the French and American wars in Vietnam. That has led a lot of people to think that they should go easy on the Vietnamese government, but that doesn’t make the life of the Vietnamese necessarily any better."
He adds: “That’s why Western governments prefer to pump money into the blossoming Vietnamese economy rather than commenting on the fact that Vietnam still remains a one-party dictatorship. They’ve given Vietnam a 'pass' on human rights violations."
International human rights organisations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have repeatedly called for his release. Amnesty named him “a prisoner of conscience” after his arrest last June.
Wednesday’s trial is nothing new in Vietnam. Anyone who speaks out publicly against the one-party system is seen as a dissident and can be arrested. Le Cong Dinh, for instance, was tried for organising a debate on the need for a multi-party political system in Vietnam. He was sentenced to five years.
“He is a brave man," says Mr Adams, “But I fear he will disappear off the radar now. There will be others who will take his place, but over the years, there have been so many people like him so there’s a lack of continuity in this struggle for freedom and democracy."
This lack of continuity also means there are no human rights activists who can oppose the government year after year. They’re not able to raise a high international profile, such as Aung San Suu Kyi who is still the symbol of Myanmar’s opposition movement.
“The Vietnamese dissidents don’t have that profile," Mr Adams says. “But don’t forget that Ms Suu Kyi only became famous after she lost the general elections. Vietnam hasn’t even reached that level of multi-party elections yet."
The outlook for Vietnam remains bleak when it comes to the human rights situation. “There’s no significant external pressure on Vietnam to change its political system," Mr Adams says. “If one hopes that the country will become a multi-party democracy one day, we’re looking at a very long process."
Photo: Le Cong Dinh at a lawyers' congress in Vietnam in 2008 (Archive picture courtesy of freelecongdinh.wordpress.com (in Vietnamese).