HANOI (AFP) — A Vietnamese court on Tuesday cut the jail terms of two pro-democracy activists in an unusually charged appeal hearing in which the dissidents remained defiant against the one-party communist state.
The Hanoi court reduced the prison sentence of human rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai, 38, from five years to four, and the sentence of his 28-year-old colleague Le Thi Cong Nhan from four years to three.
But it upheld their May convictions under article 88 of spreading propaganda against the state, charges the two non-violent political activists rejected in their final words to the People's Supreme Court appeal hearing.
"I reject both trials because they never would have brought a fair and objective sentence for me," said Dai, flanked by two police officers. "The reason for my struggle is the lack of democracy and human rights in Vietnam."
Nhan also openly challenged the court, in a hearing that was watched via closed circuit television by foreign media and diplomats, calmly telling the panel that it was "still on the wrong path."
"Even if I had been freed today, it would have been like being moved from a small to a big prison," she said. "I would continue to express my opinion."
The two were jailed in May for their Internet writings, interviews with foreign media, and meetings they held with university students to discuss democracy. They were arrested in March as part of a wider crackdown.
Unlike in previous such trials, the lawyers at times adopted an openly political tone, which led judges to repeatedly cut them off.
One of the defence lawyers, Dang Trong Dung, argued that both his clients had only exercised their rights to free speech, as guaranteed by the Vietnamese constitution and under international law.
"According to international conventions that Vietnam has signed or is a member to, and which have been approved by the National Assembly, citizens have the right to express their views freely and independently," he said.
"Vietnam has become a member of the WTO (World Trade Organisation) and a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council (from January 2008). Therefore, Vietnam should respect the international conventions that it has signed."
He added that "it is necessary to reconsider article 88. It is necessary to redefine the notion of propaganda."
Another defence lawyer, Dam Van Hieu, said: "Dai's words about democracy and pluralism are his personal views... No law in the world imposes punishment for personal views which are expressed peacefully."
Vietnam, a one-party state, says it does not punish anyone for their political opinions and only prosecutes criminals for breaking the law.
Tran Lam, another defence lawyer, said: "Vietnamese leaders on overseas trips have often said there are no political courts. But here, when we are talking about human rights and democracy, we are in a political court."
Dai's lawyer Bui Quang Nghiem also argued article 88 was unconstitutional.
"If a law runs counter to reality and international conventions, courage is needed to change or modify it," he said. "Dai and Nhan are innocent, and I ask for their freedom."
But at the end of the six-hour hearing, the court upheld the convictions.
The judges accepted the prosecutors' recommendation of a one-year term cut for each defendant, citing their clean criminal records and the fact that their activism had been discovered before causing serious harm to the state.
Dai faces an additional four years under house arrest after his release from prison, and Nhan three years.
Outside the closely policed court building, Nhan's mother told AFP: "I don't agree with the verdict of this court. My daughter is a patriot. She has done everything to make this country better."
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