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Savage sentences have Hanoi on defensive

By Graham Cooke - posted Friday, 8 February 2013


The freeing of Nguyen Quoc Quan after nine months in a Vietnamese jail did not attract a great deal of attention in the media, which is surprising considering Quan is an American citizen and never faced court to answer charges that he was engaged in terrorist activities.

Variously described as a mathematician, software engineer and former teacher, the main purpose of Quan's visit to Vietnam was to see his sister. However, he is a long-term member of Viet Tan, a legal organisation in every country of the world except Vietnam which regards it as subversive and terrorist.

Vietnamese authorities claim that Quan was arrested at Ho Chi Minh City Airport because he was carrying subversive literature, but Phong Nguyen, Viet Tan's Australian representative, says the only reason could have been his membership of Viet Tan.

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"Dr Quan made no secret of the fact he was an activist and that he supported the aims of Viet Tan which is to campaign for freedom of speech, regard for human rights and ultimately for democratic freedoms in Vietnam," Phong said.

"But to suggest he was in the country to topple the Government or to blow something up is ridiculous. Viet Tan is and always has been an organisation dedicated to pursuing its ends through non-violent means."

A statement from the Vietnamese Government said Quan had "confessed his crime" and had pleaded for leniency.

Quan at least has his freedom, which cannot be said for 14 Vietnamese activists who recently received prison sentences ranging from three to 13 years coupled with house arrest detentions of varying lengths. There are two women among the group and while the majority are affiliated with the Catholic Church, none claim to be Viet Tan members.

Phong said most of the mainly youthful accused had been bloggers, using social network sites to question Government policies and call for more democratic freedoms. Among those jailed was Paulus Le Son, who received a 13-year prison sentence followed by five years in at-home detention.

"They accused him of working for Viet Tan and publishing subversive articles, but among the things he did write were commentaries on the dispute between Vietnam and China on ownership of the Paracel Islands, supporting Vietnam's territorial claim and urging the Government to take a stronger line with China," Phong said.

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"China has acted as the bully, saying its claim to the islands is 'undisputed' and arresting Vietnamese fishermen. I cannot understand how these kinds of pro-Vietnamese patriotic views can be regarded as subversive."

He said Viet Tan was working with other human rights organisations on a submission to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which investigates cases of deprivation of liberty imposed arbitrarily and inconsistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

"We believe the arrest of these young activists comes under the group's mandate and hope that this will put pressure on the Government in Hanoi to reconsider these brutal sentences," Phong said.

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About the Author

Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times.


He has travelled to and reported on events in more than 20 countries, including an extended stay in the Middle East. Based in Canberra, where he obtains casual employment as a speech writer in the Australian Public Service, he continues to find occasional assignments overseas, supporting the coverage of international news organisations.

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