Nine years ago, on January 20, 2010, the People’s Court of Ho Chi Minh City convicted Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, Le Cong Dinh, Le Thang Long and Nguyen Tien Trung under Article 79 of the 1999 Penal Code for “subversion against the people’s government.”
Tran Huynh Duy Thuc was sentenced to 16 years in prison and five years probation which technically meant five more years under house arrest.
Thuc was arrested in May 2009, and for almost a decade, the unique case of a successful entrepreneur turned dissident continued to be the highest profile among the hundreds of political prisoners and dissidents in the country.
Article 79 has faced harsh criticisms from the international community.
During Vietnam’s 2nd UPR cycle in 2014, the Vietnamese government accepted the recommendations to amend this and other arbitrary penal codes under the “national security” section, to ensure they would not be used to infringe the people’s human rights.
However, in reality, the amended Penal Code of 2015 did not change the situation in any way. The crime “subversion against the state” remains as Article 109 under the new code.
Thuc’s indictment described his criminal conducts included the act of forming and persuading people to join the Chan research group, to write and publish online articles defaming the government, creating division among the Vietnamese Communist Party.
The prosecution further alleged that he had attempted to reach out and establish a relationship with leaders of the VCP, with the intent of re-shaping their political opinion to change the regime, and that he had planned to manufacture a document named “The Vietnam Path” to subvert against the State.
The Vietnamese government’s point of view on “subversion against the State” is often not shared by the international community, especially democratic nations in the West.
The heart of the problem lies in Section 1, Article 4 of Vietnam 2013 Constitution which states:
The Communist Party of Vietnam – the Vanguard of the Vietnamese working class, simultaneously the vanguard of labourers and of the Vietnamese nation, the faithful representative of the interests of the working class, labourers and the whole nation, acting upon the Marxist-Leninist doctrine and Ho Chi Minh’s thought, is the leading force of the State and society.
Because of this political monopoly, the VCP and the State of Vietnam became interchangeable in the mind of Hanoi’s regime.
The leaders of the VCP would not hesitate in sentencing people who hold a different political philosophy than theirs to prison for decades because questioning the ultimate leadership of the Party equates “overthrowing the government.”
This viewpoint effectively puts the VCP at odds with the universal values of human rights, in particular, the right to freedom of expression where holding a different political opinion, calling for pluralism and a multi-party system cannot be deemed criminal.
In Tran Huynh Duy Thuc’s case, the defendants were also found guilty because the government further alleged that they were members of the Democratic Party and had started to write a new constitution.
As one may correctly guess, organizing a political party in Vietnam – as in Thuc’s case – could also be construed as an act to “subvert the government.”
Vietnam, at press time, has only one political party.
Thuc has received the offer to be released into exile on numerous occasions, but he turned them down, stating that he would finish his full prison term instead of having to leave his home country indefinitely.
The offer to be released into exile to political prisoners in Vietnam is not a release.
It is more like a suspension of the sentence for either medical or humanitarian reasons. The released prisoners would not be able to come back to Vietnam, effectively being banned from their own country.
When the Penal Code was amended, Thuc’s attorney has argued that the government should release him according to Section 3 of Article 109. Because at most, the evidence provided by the prosecution could only show that the defendants were in “preparation” to commit a crime under Section 3, with the maximum sentence of five years.
His petition for a review of the case under the new Penal Code has gone unanswered.
On December 13, 2018, Julie Ward, a Member of the European Parliament representing the North West of England, sent a letter to the President of Vietnam – Nguyen Phu Trong – (who is also the leader of the VCP), calling for an unconditional, in-country release of Tran Huynh Duy Thuc. The letter addressed the concerns over allegations from his family that he had suffered abuse in prison.
A group of the EU Parliament’s MEPs, including Ms. Ward, has stated in more than one occasion that the release of prisoners of conscience like Tran Huynh Duy Thuc would be a critical condition for them to support the EU-Vietnam FTA.
On this 9th anniversary of his conviction, U.S. House Representative Zoe Lofgren also called for Tran Huynh Duy Thuc’s release and denounced the mistreatment of political prisoners by Vietnamese authorities.