Awkward position for Vietnam as China is biggest trading partner
|Police officers run to block protesters marching through Hanoi in a demonstration against Beijing''s claims in the South China Sea, Dec. 9, 2012. Photo: AP|
A Vietnamese court has sentenced two young activists to lengthy prison sentences for distributing anti-Chinese leaflets in Ho Chi Minh City.
The People’s Court of Long An province in southern Vietnam sentenced Nguyen Phuong Uyen, 21, to six years in jail and three years of house arrest and Dinh Nguyen Kha, 25, to 10 years in jail and two years of house arrest. Two of years of Kha's sentence stem from an earlier, unknown verdict.
The two students had been accused of distorting "the party and the state’s policies related to religion and land, and exhibit[ing] a twisted viewpoint regarding the Spratly and Paracel islands and the border land between Vietnam and China", according to the charges.
Vietnam and China both claim sovereignty of the Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea. In recent years, Vietnam has been in the awkward position of having to regularly clamp down on patriotic, anti-Chinese protests for fear of antagonising its largest trading partner.
Uyen and Kha have been accused of distributing leaflets that called on their government to take a tougher stance against what they said where Chinese incursions on Vietnamese sovereignty and exploitation of the country's natural resources.
"This has less to do with Beijing putting pressure on Hanoi," said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division. "But more with the fear of the authorities that China issues would be used as a common front for people with different grievances against the state to unite and raise demands for reform."
Their lawyer had petitioned the prosecution to drop the charges, arguing that the two were only being patriotic, Radio Free Asia reported earlier.
Uyen and Kha were arrested in autumn in Ho Chi Minh City and were charged with “conducting propaganda against the state” under the controversial article 88 of the penal code. Kha faced an additional charge of “terrorism”.
Their leaflets had been signed by the Patriotic Youth League, an overseas advocacy group banned in the country. At least four people who attended the proceedings on Thursday to show support for the two defendants have been arrested.
"This is a continuing pattern we have seen," said Robertson. "The government seems to have a systematic policy to try to keep well-known activists away from other activists' trials."