April 5, 2018 | Nguyễn Văn Đài – probably one of the most prominent dissidents in Vietnam for almost two decades – received one of the harshest sentences for political dissent in recent years.
A court in Hanoi, Vietnam sentenced Nguyễn Văn Đài to 15 years imprisonment and 5 years probation under house arrest. His colleagues tried and convicted in the same case, also received equally harsh sentences. Nguyễn Trung Tôn, 12 years imprisonment and 3 years probation; Trương Minh Đức, 12 years imprisonment and 3 years probation; Nguyễn Bắc Truyển, 11 years imprisonment and 3 years probation; Lê Thu Hà, 9 years imprisonment and 2 years probation; Phạm Văn Trội, 7 years imprisonment and 1 year probation.
The 48-year old former attorney was among the first group of Vietnamese lawyers who took up political cases in the early 2000’s and defended dissidents, as well as those who were persecuted for exercising religious freedom.
Đài was the type of lawyer who would defend those accused of the very same crime he is facing today: “conducting activities to overthrow the people’s government.”
This crime is infamously known among international human rights groups and foreign embassies as the Article 79 of Vietnam’s Penal Code 1999.
While carrying capital punishment as the maximum sentence, Article 79 however, utterly lacks a clear, well-defined description of conducts which would constitute a person’s criminal liability, and as such, making it impossible for people to cry out mea culpa.
The law only states that “a person conducting activities to form or participate in any organization to overthrow the people’s government shall be punished as follows,” and then immediately dwells into specifying the sentencing guidelines from twelve years, twenty years, life imprisonment, up to the death sentence for the main perpetrator, and five to fifteen years for those who act as accomplices.
Because of this ambiguity per se in its language, Article 79 had faced strong criticism from the international community over the years, especially during the last Vietnam’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in January 2014.
Critics continue pointing out, that along with Articles 88 and 258 of the Penal Code, the government has used these criminal provisions almost exclusively against political dissidents and pro-democracy activists, taking advantage of the vague language of these codes to criminalize peaceful protests and suppress political dissent.
Facing such international pressure during the 2014 UPR, Vietnam agreed to amend Article 79, and they did, in 2015.
However, except for some minor, cosmetic changes such as the number of the code section from 79 to 109, and adding a category for those who are “preparing to commit the crime” with the punishment ranging from one to five years imprisonment, the remaining of the “new” Article 109 is taken verbatim from Article 79.
In short, we still have to look to actual cases to define which conducts would constitute the crime of “overthrowing the people’s government” in Vietnam, and in Đài’s case today, such conducts would be:
“Opening an office, having a website to operate, developing a ‘shortening manifesto’, having a structured organization, having internal and external affairs strategy, operating to increase membership, capacity, …; abusing the right to promote ‘democracy, human rights,’ ‘civil society’ to conceal the objectives of the Brotherhood for Democracy … waiting for the appropriate timing to openly operate in opposition of the government through changing the political structure in Vietnam, developing ‘pluralism with multiple parties’ and a government with ‘separation of powers’ to overthrow the people’s government while using a private sector economy as its basis.”
The above paragraph was an excerpt taken from the Conclusion section at page 10 of the 16-page long indictment issued on December 31, 2017 against Nguyễn Văn Đài and his five colleagues, Lê Thu Hà (who was arrested together with Đài on December 16, 2015), Nguyễn Bắc Truyển, Nguyễn Trung Tôn, Trương Minh Đức, and Phạm Văn Trội.
The new Penal Code of Vietnam was not taken effective until January 1, 2018. Thus, Đài and his colleagues were charged with Article 79 of the old code.
Nguyễn Văn Đài has never shied away from his political ambitions and his outspoken criticism of the current regime, especially regarding the political monopoly the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) has over the country.
In 2006, Đài openly called for the establishment of other political parties and forming political opposition to challenge the VPC’s ruling. According to a research on Vietnam’s democratization advocates conducted by the Australian scholar, Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet, Nguyễn Văn Đài would fall under the category of those who chose to confront the regime head-on.
He holds a firm personal belief that every Vietnamese people do have the intellectual capacity and enough knowledge to participate in a pluralistic form of governance with multiple parties.
He previously wrote that Vietnam had had other political parties in the past, during the 1930’s and the early independent days from 1945-1946. Notably, in the South of Vietnam – before the fall of Saigon – political parties were very active. Moreover, Đài always believes that the current Constitution supports the formation of other political parties besides the VPC.
His direct challenge to the ruling party’s power resulted in a conviction for “propaganda against the state” under Article 88 in 2007, where he served four years in prison and was released in 2011.
Coincidentally, 2011, the year in which Đài was released, also marked the beginning of an unprecedented rise of the young pro-democracy and pro-human rights movement in Vietnam.
Starting in the summer of 2011, Vietnamese people – especially youths – swarmed the streets of major cities such as Hanoi and Saigon, protesting against China’s aggression due to the incident involving the cutting of Vietnam’s Binh Minh vessel’s cable cab in the South China Sea.
People organized protests through Facebook’s pages, and statuses, calling for massive turnouts all over the country like never seen before, at least not anything like that had happened since after the Vietnam War was over in 1975.
At first, the government allowed the protests, but when faced with thousands of youths on the streets, they quickly decided to change course and started cracking down on peaceful protesters. Yet this very conduct of the government had opened doors to another era of civil disobedience in Vietnam: the birth of the independent civil society organizations (CSO) movement inside the country. Many of the protesters on those streets in Vietnam six years ago are now the prominent faces of the pro-democracy movement.
The undeterred Nguyễn Văn Đài quickly caught on to this phenomenon and organized his own CSO – the Brotherhood for Democracy (which got named in the indictment) – continuing pushing for political changes through challenging the one-party rule. A person with charisma, Đài again rose to the occasion, becoming the familiar face during those meetings with foreign officials and diplomats from many embassies in Hanoi.
And that was documented in his December 2017 indictment as well, where it detailed how he was able to connect with foreign institutions and individuals to secure funding for his CSO – activities that are normal for any non-governmental organization around the world. The indictment even named diplomats from the U.S. and Germany as people who acted as his references.
It also worths noting that almost two years ago, Vietnam’s National Assembly attempted to pass a law on association with restrictions on receiving “foreign funds.” However, such efforts failed when faced with stern opposition from NGOs and CSOs from Vietnam, both registered and non-registered.
Thus, except for the indictment in Đài’s case making it out to be a crime, Vietnam’s laws have yet to prohibit NGOs to receive foreign financial aids.
But the reality remains, that as of right now, Vietnam still only has one political party – the Communist Party – and Nguyễn Văn Đài and his colleagues’ latest trial and conviction demonstrate that any efforts aiming at forming a political opposition would constitute conduct punishable by very long and harsh sentences.
In December 2008, many people gasped as China sentenced Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Liu Xiaobo, to 11 years for “suspicion of subversion against the state.”
Now almost ten years later, in April 2018, using an eerily similar charge against Nguyễn Văn Đài and his colleagues, Vietnam has demonstrated that it too, does not yield to international pressure and would even go the extra miles in sending political dissents to prisons for even longer terms than its communist big brother.