The defendants, whose trial in Haiphong began Thursday, include a landless farmer and a former member of the ruling Communist Party.

They are expected to be sentenced on Friday and are among nine people tried this week for propaganda against the state under Penal Code Article 88, which rights activists say criminalises peaceful dissent.

Tran Vu Hai, a lawyer representing some of the accused, argued that just because people had different views, it did not mean they were against the state.

"We have 85 million people and we have 85 million views, and we have to respect that," he told the court.

The banners blamed the Communist Party for last year's high inflation, and accused it of "losing the archipelagos", an apparent reference to a territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea, the indictment said.

"No democracy, freedom or human rights, also due to the communist regime," declared one of two banners hung last year from bridges in this northeastern port city and neighbouring Hai Duong province, according to the indictment.

One banner mentioned Bloc 8406, a pro-democracy movement which took its name from the date in 2006 on which it was founded.

The accused also allegedly photographed their banners, gave out leaflets in Hai Duong, wrote and distributed other anti-state documents, and colluded with overseas dissidents in actions "very harmful to national security".

"I was a Party member. I have devoted my life to the Party," said one of the accused, Nguyen Manh Son, 66, who denied writing anything against the state.

"What I wrote was what came from my heart," he said.

Another man on trial, Nguyen Van Tuc, 45, said he was a poorly educated farmer and combat veteran who had lost his land to corrupt officials.

"No one was for the rights of the people.... That's why I asked for pluralism, for a multi-party system," said Tuc, speaking in a forceful voice.

"I think that in the past, Party members were very good but now some have done bad things against the people."

The alleged leader of the group is Nguyen Xuan Nghia, 60. His views conform to Vietnam's constitution and to international conventions to which the country is a party, his lawyer, Hai, said.

Foreign journalists and diplomats were not allowed into the courtroom but received permission to monitor the hearing via closed-circuit television from a separate room.

The other accused are Nguyen Van Tinh, 67, Nguyen Kim Nhan, 60, and Ngo Quynh, 25.

They should all be "seriously punished and educated" because their behaviour ran counter to the interests of the nation "and the aspirations of the people," the prosecutor said.

Separately in Hanoi on Thursday, Pham Van Troi, 37, a poet, was jailed for four years under Article 88, also for espousing a multi-party system.

A day earlier Vu Van Hung, a dismissed teacher who said he wanted his "little voice" to help improve society, was jailed for three years under Article 88 for hanging out a banner calling for political reform.

A poet, Tran Duc Thach, received an identical sentence after a trial Tuesday in the capital, a close friend of the defendant said, adding Thach was arrested in September last year and charged under Article 88.

The eight others were also arrested in September last year.

Agence France Presse - October 8, 2009