A court in northern Vietnam’s Hoa Binh province on Wednesday sentenced land-rights activist Can Thi Theu and her son Trinh Ba Tu to eight years in prison each for posting online articles and livestream videos criticizing the government for its handling of a deadly land-rights clash last year.
The eight-year terms for the pair, who worked to raise awareness of the socially and politically explosive issue of land grabs in the country of 95 million people, will be followed by three years each on probation, the court’s judgment said.
A well-known activist in Hanoi, Theu was arrested on June 24, 2020 with her sons Trinh Ba Tu and Trinh Ba Phuong on charges of “creating, storing, and disseminating information, documents, items and publications opposing the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” under Article 117 of Vietnam’s Penal Code.
The three family members had been outspoken in social media postings about the Jan. 9, 2020 clash in Dong Tam commune in which 3,000 police stormed barricaded protesters’ homes at a construction site about 25 miles south of the capital, killing a village elder.
They had also offered information to foreign embassies and other international groups to try to raise awareness of the incident.
Three police officers also died in the clash.
Speaking to RFA’s Vietnamese Service after the trial, defense attorney Dang Dinh Manh said that the sentences of eight years in prison and three years’ probation were within the range of outcomes expected by the defendants and their lawyers.
“Both the mother and the son were well prepared for the trial,” Manh said, adding, “They were calm, strong, and steadfast. I’ve been involved in many political cases, but I’ve never seen anyone like them before.”
Theu’s daughter Trinh Thi Thao and daughter-in-law Do Thi Thu were allowed into court for the trial, but Theu’s husband Trinh Ba Khiem, who arrived without identification, was not permitted to attend.
Following the trial, Thao and Manh posted accounts of Theu and her son’s statements in court, where both declared they had been the victims of forced evictions ordered by Vietnamese authorities, who they said fail to represent the country’s people.
Theu also said she had been held by police in a small cell housing 10 people, some of them infected with HIV/AIDS, and that when her cellmates fought she attempted to separate them and was injured in the fighting, causing her to bleed.
Her request to be tested afterward for possible infection was turned down by detention center officials, she said.
Tu said in court that a prosecutor named Vu Binh Minh had once cursed at him, and that an investigator told him he would receive a six-year term if he pleaded guilty, whereas he would otherwise be sentenced to a full eight years.
Responding to questions about their posting of livestream videos, both mother and son said they had published the videos to tell the world about land grabs in Vietnam and to call attention to what they called the “wrongdoings and crimes” committed by government officials.
'Travesty of justice'
In a May 5 statement, rights group Amnesty International condemned the sentences handed down to Can Thi Theu—who had been jailed twice before in 2014 and 2016 for protesting government-ordered seizures of land—and her son, calling their conviction “a travesty of justice.”
“Can Thi Theu and her son, Trinh Ba Tu, are brave human rights defenders who should be protected by the Vietnamese government, not harassed and locked away,” said Emmerlynne Gil, Amnesty’s Deputy Regional Director for Research.
“The authorities in Viet Nam should overturn this unjust conviction without delay and immediately and unconditionally release Can Thi Theu and Trinh Ba Tu. They were convicted solely for peacefully exercising their human rights.”
“The Vietnamese authorities must release all those unjustly imprisoned in Vietnamese jails,” said Gil.
While all land in Vietnam is ultimately held by the state, land confiscations have become a flashpoint as residents accuse the government of pushing small landholders aside in favor of lucrative real estate projects, and of paying too little in compensation to farming families displaced by development.
Also on May 5, police in coastal Vietnam’s Phu Yen province arrested Nguyen Bao Tien, 35, a distributor for the now-shuttered Liberal Publishing House, charging him with “disseminating anti-State materials” under Article 117, according to state media reports.
From August to October 2019, police investigators said, Tien had received 68 parcels containing books with contents opposing Vietnam’s communist government. He had then sent 24 of the parcels to other people and had kept the remainder in his home, where they were found by police, investigators said.
The Liberal Publishing House was founded in Ho Chi Minh City in February 2019 by a group of dissidents who wanted to challenge the authoritarian, one-party government’s control of the publishing industry, and the government later that year launched a targeted campaign aimed at shutting down the publisher and intimidating its writers and associates.
Security forces questioned at least 100 people across the country, and searched the homes of at least a dozen, confiscating books on democracy and public policy printed by the publishing house, according to Amnesty International.
In June 2020, the Liberal Publishing House was awarded the Prix Voltaire for its “devotion and courage” by the Geneva-based International Publishers Association.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Anna Vu. Written in English by Richard Finney.
Photo: State Media. Vietnamese land-rights activists Can Thi Theu (left) and Trinh Ba Tu are shown at their trial in Hoa Binh province, May 5, 2021.