A court in Vietnam sentenced blogger activist Nguyen Van Hoa to seven years in prison Monday for “conducting propaganda against the state,” saying he had tried to incite protests over the government’s handling of a devastating toxic waste spill in 2016.
The People’s Court of Ha Tinh province found Hoa, 22, guilty of violating Article 88 of Vietnam’s Penal Code in a two-and-a-half hour trial and also ruled that he be placed under house arrest for three years after his jail term is complete.
Hoa’s hearing had initially been scheduled for Nov. 28, but the proceedings were moved up unexpectedly. No attorney was present to represent him.
Attempts by RFA’s Vietnamese Service to reach Hoa’s family members for comment after the trial went unanswered.
State media reported Monday that Hoa had produced video, photos, and articles about Taiwan-owned Formosa Plastics Group’s April 2016 release of toxic chemicals from its massive steel plant located at the deep-water port in Ha Tinh for the purpose of “propagating against, distorting and defaming the government.”
Hoa “received money” from “extremists and hostile forces” to cause public disorder, the reports said.
The Formosa spill killed an estimated 115 tons of fish and left fishermen and tourism industry workers jobless in four central provinces. The company pledged U.S. $500 million to clean up and compensate people affected by the spill, but the government has faced protests over the amount of the settlement and the slow pace of payouts.
Hoa, who is also a digital security trainer and regular contributor to RFA, was the first person to broadcast live footage of protests outside the company’s steel plant in Ha Tinh using a flycam drone. Last October, his footage of more than 10,000 peaceful protesters went viral.
He was initially arrested on Jan. 11 for “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state” under Article 258 of the Penal Code, but the charges against him were upgraded in April to the more severe “propaganda against the state” under Article 88.
Rights lawyer Le Cong Dinh called the ruling against Hoa a “predetermined judgment that was completely predictable.”
He condemned what he said was “a secret trial,” saying the court had “tricked people” into thinking that the hearing would take place on Tuesday.
“Under Vietnamese law, the defendant has the right to refuse a lawyer,” he told RFA.
“But a trial without a lawyer, like this one, fails to meet an important legal standard that everyone around the world agrees on the need for.”
Dinh said that Vietnam’s government works hard to prevent lawyers from taking part in political cases, such as Hoa’s, because “they fear the evidence they provide will be challenged.”
“We all know that most of the evidence is fabricated and falsely interpreted,” he said.
“Therefore, it’s not surprising to know that there was no lawyer at his trial.”
Facebook user Huy Jos, a fellow activist and friend, told RFA that he found Hoa’s sentence particularly harsh.
“[The sentence] is very unfair for such a young man fighting for a better society,” he said.
“But I know he will never regret what he did.”
The Ha Tinh court’s ruling also drew condemnation from Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF), with the head of its Asia-Pacific desk, Daniel Bastard, calling it “totally disproportionate” in a statement Monday.
“It was all the more severe because Hoa showed his good faith by accepting all the police recommendations,” Bastard said, noting that the blogger had agreed not to take a lawyer and signed a confession that was broadcast on state TV in April.
“Not even his family was warned that this trial was going to take place. Such drastic action confirms the intransigence of Vietnam’s refusal to tolerate any reporting freedom. Vietnam’s commercial partners should draw the appropriate conclusions.”
RSF noted that Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, a blogger better known as “Me Nam” (Mother Mushroom), was given a ten-year jail sentence last June for similar reasons.
On Monday, Quynh’s lawyer Vo An Don was struck from the bar association, days before her Nov. 30 appeal hearing.
Authorities have been targeting activist writers and bloggers in a months-long crackdown in one-party Communist Vietnam, where dissent is not tolerated.
Vietnam is currently holding at least 84 prisoners of conscience, the highest number in any country in Southeast Asia, according to rights group Amnesty International.
RSF ranked Vietnam 175th out of 180 countries in its 2017 World Press Freedom Index.