By John Ruwitch
HANOI (Reuters) - A Vietnamese legal scholar who sued the prime minister and called for an end to one-party rule went on trial on Monday on charges of spreading propaganda against the state and faces up to 12 years in jail.
Cu Huy Ha Vu was arrested in November and later indicted for circulating anti-government material.
Detention and imprisonment of people who advocate political change in Vietnam or challenge the government on sensitive topics are not uncommon, but Vu's case has garnered attention at home and abroad because of his pedigree and brazenness.
Vu is the son of Cu Huy Can, a famous poet who served as a parliamentarian and government minister and was a confidant of Communist revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh.
He gained notoriety when he sued Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in June 2009 over controversial government plans to mine and process bauxite with Chinese help.
"This is the most important case that we have seen in the last several years," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
"Cu Huy Ha Vu is clearly someone who is from within the revolutionary tradition and the revolutionary elite of this society. By going after him they are really stepping further than they have gone before. The crackdown is intensifying."
Authorities intensified suppression of dissent in the months before a Communist Party congress in January, analysts said.
Hundreds of Catholic believers held candlelight prayers at a churches in Hanoi at the weekend for Vu, who tried to represent Catholics embroiled in a land dispute with the government in central Vietnam last year but was prevented by authorities.
A Hanoi court declined to hear the bauxite case against the prime minister on the grounds that it did not have jurisdiction over officials above the rank of minister.
Weeks before his arrest Vu filed another suit against Dung, this time claiming that new government guidelines restricting the scope of citizens' petitions were unconstitutional.
Analysts say Vu's family links shielded him from trouble over the years. Vu had also worked with the government regularly, including the Foreign Ministry until last year, and even nominated himself to become a member of parliament.
A diplomatic source who has had several conversations with Vu said he was emboldened by his connections and did not expect to be arrested, despite apparent warnings.
In addition to going after the prime minister, Vu had sought an amendment to Article 4 of the Vietnamese constitution, which gives legal backing to the Communist Party's monopoly on power.
He faces charges of spreading propaganda against the state under Article 88 of the Vietnamese penal code, which critics say is regularly abused by the Party to silence dissent.
Human rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai, who was freed from prison last month after serving four years for the same crime that Vu is charged with, said in a letter the indictments, accompanying documentation and evidence were "totally ungrounded."
Vu, who got a PhD in law from the Sorbonne in France, has retained five lawyers. His wife, also a lawyer, has been barred from defending him, Human Rights Watch said.
Only four foreign diplomats and two foreign journalists have been granted permission by the authorities to cover the trial, the foreign ministry and a diplomat said.
(Editing by Andrew Marshall)