The Hanoi People’s Court on March 23 sentenced prominent independent blogger Nguyễn Hữu Vinh, known also by his pen name Anh Ba Sam or “Brother Gossip,” to five years in prison for charges related to his work.
Under the Vietnamese Criminal Code he was charged with “misusing democratic freedom to encroach on State interests [and] the legitimate rights of groups and individuals.”
Vinh’s administrative assistant, Nguyễn Minh Thúy, who refused to turn state’s evidence against him, drew a three year term.
The verdicts provide the first substantial indication of how Vietnam’s new leaders may manage civil rights cases. The short answer seems to to be: much the same as their predecessors.
Vinh and Thuy had already been detained under investigation for 20 months when, in January, the Hanoi high court announced that the air would be tried on the eve of the Vietnam Communist Party’s Twelfth Congress. Within hours, a second notice announced the trial’s postponement.
The party meetings appointed a new slate of leaders after rejecting the bid of two-term prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung to replace Nguyen Phu Trong as Vietnam’s top Communist official. The new party Politburo announced on January 28 shows a striking increase in the number of veteran party apparatchiks and senior police officers.
Ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact is also pending with Vietnam among 12 signatory nations. The pact is highly controversial in several countries and opponents abroad have expressed doubt that Vietnam in particular would live up to civil rights commitments contained in what supporters herald as a “high-standard, rules-based free-trade agreement.”
Vietnam is a one-party socialist republic. All its institutions, including the courts, are supervised by the Communist Party. Judges and procurators are selected from party members. While the judiciary is nominally accountable to the National Assembly, theoretically the highest institution of government power in the country, the party runs things.
Because “Anh Ba Sam,” which went online in 2007, has a reputation for responsible journalism in an online environment characterized by lively but typically unaccountable and often reckless political commentary, the trial was closely watched in Vietnam.
Anh Ba Sàm carries both a digest of Western reporting on Vietnam and commentary by a distinguished stable of contributors. Colleagues of Vinh and Thuy have continued to publish the blog despite their incarceration. The blog has been hacked several times by unknown assailants.
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In the second half of 2015, as leaks on the Communist Party leadership contest proliferated, Anh Ba Sam’s page views averaged over 100,000 daily. They spiked to 258,000 one day on the eve of the party congress.
The indictment against Vinh and Thuy was based on unsigned posts allegedly made to two other blogs, Dân Quyền (Peoples Rights) and Chép sừ Việt (Notes on Vietnamese Events). The indictment alleged that the two conspired to “slander and distort the truth about Vietnam.”
Their arrest in May 2014 came amid rising tension between Vietnam and China after Beijing moved its first deep-water drilling rig into the disputed South China Sea. Calls for an anti-China protest rally were made here and there in the Vietnamese blogosphere.
Some Vietnamese dissidents regarded the bloggers’ arrest as evidence that the Vietnamese government was “yielding submission” to its Chinese counterpart by detaining a famous “anticommunist China” blogger.
The ABS blog has also been the object of attacks by unknown hackers — first in 2010 and again in 2011. On March 13, 2013, it was hacked again by attackers who stole files and changed all the passwords. Its US-based managing editor, Dinh Ngoc Thu, was subsequently the object of a scurrilous ad feminem attack cobbled together from photos taken out of context from her personal laptop files.
The 2013 attack came amid a lively debate on the blog about how the Vietnamese Constitution ought to be revised. Although the National Assembly called for the people to express their ideas, the final text, enacted late in 2013, “failed to address popular aspirations for change and reform,” according to Human Rights Watch.
Commentaries on Anh Ba Sam tilted sharply toward freeing the current constitution’s guarantees of human rights from a host of eviscerating national security-based limitations. There has also been considerable support for diluting the Communist Party’s monopoly of political decision-making and freeing the courts and the mainstream media from a surfeit of political instruction.
Things reverted to normal by June 2013 when An Ba Sam again began publishing news updates and commentary on a daily basis at new, more secure websites. Then, on May 5, 2014, Vinh, the blog’s founder and editor – a retired police officer – was arrested at his home and his hard drive and other files taken as evidence. Also arrested was his assistant, Thúy.