HANOI (Reuters) - A Vietnamese court sentenced three high-profile bloggers to jail terms ranging from four to 12 years on Monday, in the latest crackdown on dissent as booming Internet usage threatens to undermine the Communist government's authority.
Bloggers in Vietnam, which has one of the world's fastest growing Internet populations, have grown bolder in criticizing the government over issues ranging from land rights to corruption, and China's growing regional influence.
That comes as Vietnam's economy, not long ago a star of Southeast Asia, faces a slowdown in the wake of debt scandals at its huge state enterprises that have undermined investor confidence and exposed divisions in the Communist leadership.
The government has responded to the growing dissent with a crackdown that has earned it the title of "Enemy of the Internet" from media freedom group Reporters Without Borders, which says only China and Iran jail more journalists.
Nguyen Van Hai, who criticized government policies under his blogging name Dieu Cay, was jailed for 12 years for "anti-state propaganda", according to a lawyer for the bloggers who attended the brief trial in southern Ho Chi Minh City on Monday.
Fellow bloggers Ta Phong Tan and Phan Thanh Hai got 10 years and four years respectively, said the lawyer, Ha Huy Son. All three were founding members of the Free Journalists Club, a website set up for bloggers to post their writing.
"These harsh sentences against bloggers are absolutely outrageous, and show the depth of the Vietnam government's intolerance of views that oppose its own," said Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director for Human Rights Watch.
"Today's sentences show how deep-seated the Vietnam government crackdown on basic human rights really is."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she raised concerns over human rights and the three bloggers during a visit to Vietnam in July, but Washington and Europe have stopped short of sanctioning the country over its worsening rights record.
The U.S. embassy in Hanoi said in a statement it was "deeply concerned" by the verdict, which it said appeared to contradict Vietnam's international human rights commitments, and called for their release.
The trial of the three bloggers, which lasted only a few hours, had been scheduled for August but was postponed after the mother of Tan committed suicide by setting herself on fire.
Paris-based Vietnam human rights group Que Me said that hundreds of police blocked streets in Ho Chi Minh and "systematically" arrested dissidents and bloggers who tried to attend the closed trial.
Blogger Dieu Cay (Peasant's Pipe) was first arrested in 2008 on charges of tax evasion that human rights activists say were trumped-up. Like other bloggers, his writing focused on cases of official corruption and popular resentment of China's assertive regional role.
In a report released last week, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Vietnam's government had moved to tighten its grip on both independent and mainstream media in recent months in the wake of pro-democracy uprisings in Arab countries.
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung ordered a crackdown on three blogs that his government said were "reactionary".
(Reporting by Hanoi Newsroom; Writing by Stuart Grudgings in Kuala Lumpur; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)