A human rights lawyer who could face the death penalty on charges of trying to overthrow Vietnam’s communist government testified on Wednesday that he had been swayed by Western ideas about democracy and freedom.
Le Cong Dinh, one of the country’s best-known lawyers, is among three defendants in the trial that opened on Wednesday who could be sentenced to the firing squad for roles in creating organizations to compete with the Communist Party. The fourth defendant, who is being tried as an accomplice, could face 15 years.
They are accused of collaborating with Vietnamese exile groups and “hostile forces” online to promote the Democratic Party of Vietnam and unseat the Communist Party, which maintains absolute control in Vietnam
The trial comes during one of Vietnam’s periodic crackdowns against dissent. Some observers have speculated that the latest crackdown is the result of jockeying among political factions in advance of next year’s Communist Party congress, which takes place every five years.
It is virtually unheard of for political defendants to be acquitted in Vietnam. The main issue to be determined at trial involves the length of the sentence. They have been charged under Article 79 of Vietnam’s criminal code with “carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration.”
The first to testify was Dinh, who acknowledged violating Article 79 by joining the Democratic Party of Vietnam. “The purpose of the party was to call for a multiparty system, political pluralism and a new state,” said, who studied law at Tulane University in the U.S. state of Louisiana on a Fulbright scholarship.
“During my studies overseas, I was influenced by Western attitudes toward democracy, freedom and human rights,” Dinh testified.
Dinh acknowledged receiving a draft of a proposed new Vietnamese constitution from DPV leaders and attending a three-day seminar in Thailand on non-violent political change organized by Viet Tan, an international pro-democracy network with members inside and outside Vietnam.
Vietnam’s government considers Viet Tan a terrorist organization, but U.S. officials say there is no evidence to support that view.
On the eve of Wednesday’s trial, Viet Tan issued a statement condemning the “arbitrary charges” against the democracy activists, who it said were simply exercising their right to promote non-violent change.
The next to testify was Nguyen Tien Trung, who formed a student group called Viet Youth for Democracy in 2006 while studying information technology in France.
Trung acknowledged joining the Democratic Party of Vietnam and forming the youth group but said he regretted doing so.
“My actions violated Vietnamese law,” said Trung, 26. “I was immature and made a mistake. I deeply regret it. I hurt my family and my friends.”
A third defendant, Le Thang Long, 42, denied he had done anything wrong.
When the court broke for lunch, the fourth defendant, Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, 43, had yet to be questioned.
In their opening statement, prosecutors said the defendants had committed “an extremely serious” national security crime.
“The defendants activities were closely organized,” prosecutors said. “They colluded with reactionary Vietnamese and hostile forces in exile to establish a reactionary political organization.”
Dinh is one of Vietnam’s best known lawyers. In addition to handling high-profile human rights cases, he once represented Vietnamese fish farmers fighting an unfair trade complaint brought by U.S. catfish growers.
During closing arguments at a 2007 human rights trial in Hanoi, Dinh made a highly unusual public plea for freedom of expression.
Foreign reporters and diplomats watched the two-day trial on closed-circuit television in a separate room at the court. They were prohibited from bringing mobile phones, recording devices or cameras.
In recent months, Vietnam has also arrested several bloggers and blocked the popular social networking site Facebook.
Last month, authorities convicted democracy advocate Tran Anh Kim of subversion and sentenced him to 5.5 years in prison for violating Article 79. In October, nine others were convicted of violating Article 88, a lesser charge that prohibits spreading propaganda against the state.
New York-based Human Rights Watch condemned the proceedings.
“Vietnam’s hostility toward freedom of expression and peaceful dissent is becoming increasingly flagrant in the run-up to next year’s party congress,” Brad Adams, the organization’s Asia director, said in a statement issued on Wednesday. “Vietnam should stop criminalizing and imprisoning government critics for simply exercising their right to freedom of speech.”