HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — A Vietnamese court found 14 democracy activists guilty of subversion and sentenced them to jail terms ranging from three to 13 years, verdicts which drew immediate criticism from the United States.
The long prison terms imposed Wednesday suggest that the Communist government is intent on stepping up its ongoing crackdown on people who publicly challenge its authoritarian, one-party rule. In recent years, the Internet has emerged as a powerful tool for dissidents, alarming many in the ruling elite at a time of economic uncertainty.
The defendants are linked to Viet Tan, a Vietnamese dissident group based in the United States. Vietnam's government has labeled it a terrorist group, but the U.S. government has said it has seen no evidence that it advocates violence.
The People's Court in central Nghe An province sentenced three defendants to 13 years during the two-day trial, defense lawyer Nguyen Thi Hue said. She said 11 others received jail terms ranging from three to eight years. One of the three-year terms was suspended.
The defendants, including 12 Catholics, were arrested in late 2011.
Another defense lawyer, Tran Thu Nam, said they were found guilty of attending Viet Tan's overseas training courses on nonviolent struggle and computer and Internet security. Some also protested against China's territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea, a sensitive issue for Vietnam because of the nationalist passion the issue provokes and Hanoi's ideological ties with Beijing.
The United States wants closer ties with Vietnam because it sees it as a foil against China, but Hanoi's human rights record is a barrier. In December, human rights lawyer and blogger Le Quoc Quan was arrested. Last year, more than a dozen activists were sentenced to long jail terms.
In Washington, the State Department said it was "deeply troubled" by Wednesday's verdicts and was raising these and other cases with the Vietnamese government.
"These convictions along with recent other detentions of a human rights lawyer and other bloggers since December 27 are part of a very disturbing human rights trend in Vietnam," spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
Earlier, the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi called for immediate release of the 14 activists and all other prisoners of conscience.
Viet Tan said citizen journalists in the town had been restricted by police to their hotel rooms during the trial.
"These activists have tirelessly advocated for social justice, engaged in citizen journalism and participated in peaceful demonstrations against Chinese territorial encroachment," it said in a statement. "The Hanoi regime has shown once again its fear of civil society. "