After a day-long trial in Ho Chi Minh City on Wednesday, the four were convicted of "activities aimed at subverting the people's administration", prompting swift diplomatic reaction.

"The trial and verdicts are a major and regrettable step backwards for Vietnam," the European Union delegation to Vietnam said in a statement.

"The esteem of the international community and long-term economic progress are not sustainable if peaceful expression... is suppressed."

American ambassador Michael Michalak expressed concern "about the apparent lack of due process in the conduct of the trials" and urged immediate release of the prisoners.

The convictions "also raise serious questions about Vietnam's commitment to rule of law and reform," he said.

British foreign office minister Ivan Lewis said: "Verdicts like these only serve to harm Vietnam's international standing."

Internet entrepreneur Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, 43, was sentenced to 16 years in prison while blogger Nguyen Tien Trung, 26, received seven years. Human rights lawyer Le Cong Dinh, 41, and Le Thang Long, 42, were each given five years.

"The 16-year sentence against Thuc is surprising," said Ben Kerkvliet, emeritus professor and Vietnam specialist at the Australian National University.

He said that as far as he is aware it is the longest sentence against a political dissident in the last dozen years.

"The accused had already been convicted in the pages of the newspapers before the trial started," said Shawn McHale, director of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at Washington's George Washington University.

Some observers see their case , the highest-profile in a series over the past year, as linked to next year's Communist Party Congress when high-ranking leadership posts will be determined.

London-based human rights watchdog Amnesty International said the convicted men were "prisoners of conscience" who should be immediately freed.

"The trial made a complete mockery of justice, disregarding fundamental human rights such as the principle of presumption of innocence and the right to defence," said Brittis Edman, Amnesty's Vietnam researcher.

McHale, in an emailed response to questions from AFP, said the indictment "strained belief."

Judge Nguyen Duc Sau convicted the men of a well-organised non-violent campaign, in collusion with "overseas exile reactionary organisations," aimed at overturning the government with the help of the Internet.

Supporters of Trung, a French-trained computer expert, have set up a website where they denounced "this sham of a trial", while Paris-based press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders called it a "travesty of justice".

"The central leadership of the government and Communist Party is getting tougher with outspoken critics of the state", particularly those operating in an organised way through the Internet or "self-proclaimed political parties," Kerkvliet said in an email interview.

He said "law and order advocates" may be gaining ground among the authorities.

The other analyst, McHale, said the case sends a message that political pluralism outside of the ruling party will not be tolerated. But even though one-party rule may continue for a long time, a more pluralistic environment is evolving.

The Vietnamese government has a hard time now controlling what its citizens read and think as they travel more widely and explore the Internet, he said.

By Ian Timberlake - Agence France Presse - January 22, 2010

Vietnam jails democracy activists up to 16 years

Vietnam convicted four democracy activists of trying to overthrow the communist government on Wednesday Jan 20 and sentenced them to up to 16 years in prison for promoting multiparty democracy.

The most well known of the four defendants, US-trained human rights attorney Le Cong Dinh, received a relatively light five-year sentence after judges at the HCM City People's Court deliberated for just a half-hour. The court apparently showed leniency because Dinh acknowledged breaking the law during his testimony.

"From the bottom of my heart, I myself and these three other defendants had no intention to overthrow the government," Dinh told the court.

The stiffest sentence in the one-day trial was given to Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, an Internet entrepreneur who testified that he had sought ways to improve Vietnam's political culture and root out corruption but insisted he had done nothing wrong.

Dinh, Thuc and a third defendant could have been sentenced to death.

Western diplomats and human rights groups slammed the verdict, saying the defendants had been punished for peacefully expressing their political views.

The trial came as factions jockey for power in advance of next year's Communist Party congress, and some observers have speculated that the current crackdown on dissent is connected to the upcoming political transition. Vietnam has convicted 10 other democracy activists in the last three months.

None of them is better known than Dinh. In addition to handling high-profile human rights cases, he once represented Vietnamese fish farmers fighting an unfair trade complaint brought by US catfish growers. During closing arguments at a 2007 human rights trial in Hanoi, Dinh made a highly unusual public plea for freedom of expression.

A panel of judges found that the defendants had committed "an extremely serious" national security crime by joining the outlawed Democratic Party of Vietnam and collaborating with overseas Vietnamese groups dedicated to ousting the communists. But they said some of the defendants, including Dinh, had shown remorse and had good personal records.

The court said it also took into account the fact that the defendants had been "coerced by hostile forces" from overseas who oppose Vietnam's communist government. Dinh testified Wednesday that he had been influenced by Western ideas while studying in the United States.

They were found guilty of violating Article 79 of Vietnam's criminal code, which prohibits "carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people's administration."

Defendant Nguyen Tien Trung, who formed a student group called Viet Youth for Democracy in 2006 while studying information technology in France, received a seven-year sentence.

The last defendant, Le Thang Long, who was tried as an accomplice, received a five-year sentence.

All of them received from three to five years of probation.

Dinh said he had broken the letter of the law but had never intended to overthrow the government.

"The Democratic Party of Vietnam called for a multiparty system and political pluralism, and my participation in this group constitutes a violation of Article 79," Dinh said.

Dinh, the former vice chair of the HCM City Bar Association, studied law at Tulane University in Louisiana on a Fulbright scholarship.

"During my studies overseas, I was influenced by Western attitudes toward democracy, freedom and human rights," Dinh testified.

Trung showed remorse during his testimony, saying he regretted joining the Democratic Party of Vietnam and founding his student democracy group.

"My actions violated Vietnamese law," said Trung, 26. "I was immature and made a mistake."

The other two defendants denied wrongdoing and said they had only signed confessions under duress.

Thuc, 43, acknowledged organising something called the Chan Study Group, which prosecutors say was committed to undermining the government. But Thuc said the group was simply formed to do research and make policy suggestions to Vietnamese leaders.

Le Thang Long, 42, acknowledged joining the study group, but said it was lawful.

"I'm innocent," Long said, testifying that he had been subjected to "psychological terrorism" by the security police.

Foreign reporters and diplomats watched the trial in a separate room at the court on a closed-circuit television that was sometimes inaudible. They were prohibited from bringing cameras or recording devices.

Ken Fairfax, the US consul general in HCM City, expressed disappointment with the verdict.

"We would like to reiterate our deep concern over the arrest and conviction of persons for the peaceful expression of their beliefs, political and otherwise, by the government of Vietnam" he said.

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," said Brad Adams, the organisation's Asia director.

The Associated Press - January 21, 2010

Vietnam's new breed of dissident

He is not a veteran communist, disillusioned with party ideology. He did not experience the full extent of the brutality of the Vietnam War nor the harshness of the economic impoverishment in the years following it.

Soft-spoken and charismatic, Dinh was also a successful lawyer, well-known for representing Vietnam in a number of high-profile international court cases.

He is married to one of the country's most beautiful women, Miss Vietnam 1998, Nguyen Thi Ngoc Khanh.

Neither do the other three defendants in Wednesday's high-profile trial really fit the mould. All of them are well-educated, eloquent, successful. "They are real intellectuals," said Nguyen Thanh Giang, another dissident in Hanoi.

But Le Cong Dinh, Nguyen Tien Trung, Tran Huynh Duy Thuc and Le Thang Long represent a new class of democracy campaigner - and could pose a serious threat to the regime for those exact personal attributes, as well as their connections with the West.

In Wednesday's trial, all four men were accused, and found guilty, of affiliation with "reactionary forces" overseas.

Two of them, Dinh and Trung, were educated in the United States and France, where friends and colleagues have been campaigning in their support.

Testifying before the court, Dinh said: "I have been influenced by Western ideas of democracy, freedom and human rights during my studies abroad."

'Peaceful evolution'

The one-day trial also showed a glimpse of Vietnam's attitude to the outside world.

As well as charges of subversion - including promoting ideas and plotting to overthrow the government - the defendants were accused of promoting "peaceful evolution".

This post-Cold War terminology is generally used to describe Western strategy to undermine socialist systems, and the use of it will send a loud and clear message to foreign governments.

It may be opening up its economy to the outside world, but the Vietnamese government insists it will manage social liberalisation at its own pace.

Yet critics of the regime say tightening control over democratic freedoms only pushes Vietnam further away from the global community at a time when it needs more friends and allies - especially in light of China's increasing dominance in the region.

Some analysts also believe that the trial reflects an internal struggle within the ruling Communist Party, with the conservatives looking to seize the higher ground, especially in the run-up to the next party congress in January 2011.

"This is seen by the conservatives as an opportunity to pre-empt those in the party who would push for greater party democratisation and political liberalisation in society," says Carl Thayer, a prominent Vietnam expert in Australia.

Balancing act

The trial verdicts have drawn criticism from some Western governments.

British Foreign Office Minister Ivan Lewis said he was "deeply concerned".

"Nobody should be imprisoned for peacefully expressing their opinions. Verdicts like these only serve to harm Vietnam's international standing," he said.

US consul-general Kenneth Fairfax called for the dissidents' release.

Vietnamese newspapers, meanwhile, hailed the trail as just and fair.

Three of the defendants could have faced the death penalty, but all were given jail terms instead - the toughest sentence going to Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, who received a term of 16 years, the harshest sentence given to a Vietnamese dissident for some time.

Le Cong Dinh, who confessed to his wrongdoings in court, only received a five year sentence - which was seen in local media as demonstrating the humanity of the people's court.

But what remains unsaid is that among the four accused, Dinh holds the highest profile in the West.

Giving him the lowest jail term may be an attempted balancing act, suggesting that the Vietnamese leadership is only too aware of the controversy surrounding this trial.

By Nga Pham - BBC Vietnamese Service - January 21, 2010