Vietnam Cracks Down on Activists Before Elections

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In Vietnam, the crackdown on dissidents continues in advance of elections May 20 for the National Assembly. Five activists were tried in the past week for exercising free speech. All these trials at one time are a clear signal to opponents of the regime to back off quickly. Under Vietnamese law the Communist Party is the only official voice.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

I want to mention now that in Vietnam today, a court sentenced a farm worker to five years in prison for anti-state activities, part of what some human rights groups are calling a crackdown on dissent. NPR's Michael Sullivan reports from Hanoi.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: All three trials were over in less than a day. All of the defendants belonged to groups outlawed by the Communist Party. All were accused of trying to destabilize the government and all were found guilty and sentenced to terms of three to five years. Professor Carl Thayer is a longtime Vietnam watcher at the Australian Defense Force Academy.

Professor CARL THAYER (Political Science, Australian Defense Force Academy): Well, the message Vietnam is sending is that it's going to systematically decapitate the leadership of any political group in Vietnam that makes connections overseas and that advocates at home any form of multi-party politics, political pluralism, or opposition politics.

SULLIVAN: It's a message that's coming across loud and clear, and one that is likely to resonate with Vietnam's small but growing dissident community. Sophie Richardson is deputy Asia director at Humans Rights Watch.

Ms. SOPHIE RICHARDSON (Deputy Asia Director, Humans Rights Watch): Not only are people being given actually jail sentences, but they're also being told now that they will serve several years under house arrest even once they're out of prison, you know, which effectively continues all the prohibitions on them against communicating with other people, publishing their work. The persecution will continue long after they actually get out of jail.

SULLIVAN: Human rights groups say the crackdown began in November, after Vietnam hosted Asian Pacific heads of state at the APEC Summit in Hanoi, which was followed by Vietnam's acceptance into the World Trade Organization. The crackdown and trials have been widely condemned by Western governments. But Carl Thayer says those governments are unlikely to take stronger action and the Vietnamese, he says, know it.

Prof. THAYER: I think the Vietnamese feel quite secure that there's nothing that they're doing that's going to provoke terrible consequences for Vietnam. They're confident and secure in every repression and they'll continue.

SULLIVAN: Human rights groups and foreign diplomats argue the activists were only exercising the rights guaranteed them under Vietnam's constitution. Vietnamese officials strongly disagree.

Mr. LE DZUNG (Spokesman, Vietnam Foreign Ministry): It is groundless to claim that those being tried had only exercised their right to free speech.

SULLIVAN: Vietnam Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Dzung.

Mr. DZUNG: In Vietnam, no one is detained on the ground of political views or relations, only those who violate the law possessed in accordance with the Vietnamese laws.

SULLIVAN: Under Vietnamese law, the Communist Party is the only legal party in Vietnam. And few observers believe that will change anytime soon, nor do they expect any broad-based grassroots opposition to challenge the status quo in the short to medium term. Analyst Carl Thayer.

Prof. THAYER: As long as the economy is booming and people are able to recover from terrible years of war, that's where their hearts and souls are, you know, that they support the regime, or at least don't want to antagonize it and make things worse. And the regime holds out the prospect of instability as a fear and a threat. And I think most Vietnamese, having been through the dark periods of the past, prefer to get on with business rather than challenge the regime politically.

SULLIVAN: Several activists remain in custody. No word yet on when they may be tried.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Hanoi.

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