Bloggers in Vietnam, which has one of the world's fastest growing internet populations, have grown bolder in criticising the government over issues ranging from land rights to corruption, and China's growing regional influence.

That comes as Vietnam's economy, not long ago a star of Southeast Asia, faces a slowdown in the wake of debt scandals at its huge state enterprises that have undermined investor confidence and exposed divisions in the communist leadership.

The government has responded to the growing dissent with a crackdown that has earned it the title of "Enemy of the Internet" from media freedom group Reporters Without Borders, which says only China and Iran jail more journalists.

Nguyen Van Hai, who criticized government policies under his blogging name Dieu Cay, was jailed for 12 years for "anti-state propaganda", according to a lawyer for the bloggers who attended the brief trial in southern Ho Chi Minh City on Monday.

Fellow bloggers Ta Phong Tan and Phan Thanh Hai got 10 years and four years respectively, said the lawyer, Ha Huy Son. All three were founding members of the Free Journalists Club, a website set up for bloggers to post their writing.

"These harsh sentences against bloggers are absolutely outrageous, and show the depth of the Vietnam government's intolerance of views that oppose its own," said Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director for Human Rights Watch.

"Today's sentences show how deep-seated the Vietnam government crackdown on basic human rights really is."

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said she raised concerns over human rights and the three bloggers during a visit to Vietnam in July, but Washington and Europe have stopped short of sanctioning the country over its worsening rights record.

The US embassy in Hanoi said in a statement it was "deeply concerned" by the verdict, which it said appeared to contradict Vietnam's international human rights commitments, and called for their release.

The trial of the three bloggers, which lasted only a few hours, had been scheduled for August but was postponed after the mother of Tan committed suicide by setting herself on fire.

Paris-based Vietnam human rights group Que Me said that hundreds of police blocked streets in Ho Chi Minh and "systematically" arrested dissidents and bloggers who tried to attend the closed trial.

Blogger Dieu Cay (Peasant's Pipe) was first arrested in 2008 on charges of tax evasion that human rights activists say were trumped-up. Like other bloggers, his writing focused on cases of official corruption and popular resentment of China's assertive regional role.

In a report released last week, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Vietnam's government had moved to tighten its grip on both independent and mainstream media in recent months in the wake of pro-democracy uprisings in Arab countries.

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung ordered a crackdown on three blogs that his government said were "reactionary".

Reuters - September 24, 2012

City court jails anti-state propagandists

HCM CITY — The HCM City People's Court yesterday sentenced three people to between four and 12 years in prison for carrying out "propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam."

The court sentenced the leader, 60-year-old Nguyen Van Hai, to 12 years in jail followed by a five-year confinement to his resident locality.

Two other defendants, Ta Phong Tan, 42, and Phan Thanh Hai, 43, were given 10 and four years in jail respectively. Both of them would be confined to their respective localities for three years after they served their sentence.

While Nguyen Van Hai and Phan Thanh Hai are residents of HCM City, Tan is a resident of southern Ben Tre Province.

The court said the defendants had engaged in anti-State activities for a long time, seriously affecting national security and the image of the country in global arena.

In 2007, it said, the defendants formed the Freelance Journalists Club for delivering stories and content against the nation. They built a blog for the club and published 421 stories between September 2007 to October 2010 distorting State policies.

Tan also set up the Truth and Justice blog while Phan Thanh Hai had one named Anhbasaigon.

The court said the stories have distorted the truth about the State and Party, created anxiety among citizens and supported schemes to overthrow the government.

Another defendant Le Xuan Lap, 54, a resident in neighbouring Dong Nai Province who helped the others deliver the stories, would be placed under close supervision in his locality, the court ordered.

Viet Nam News - September 25, 2012

Three bloggers jailed for anti-State propaganda

The Ho Chi Minh City People’s Court on Monday, September 24, sentenced three men to between four and 12 years in prison for charges of “conducting propaganda against the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.”

60-year-old blogger Nguyen Van Hai, alias Dieu Cay, of HCMC’s District 3, was sentenced to 12 years in prison; while 44-year-old Ta Phong Tan, assistant to the chief of Phap Quyen Law Office; and 43-year-old Phan Thanh Hai, alias Ba Saigon, the director of Nhan Quyen Law Consulting Co Ltd., were given 10 years and 4 years in jail, respectively.

They were sentenced under Clause 2, Article 88 of the 1999 Criminal Code.

Nguyen Van Hai will also have to serve five years under house arrest after he completes his prison sentence, while the probation period after release for the other two is three years. During the probation terms, all three will be deprived of a number of citizens’ rights, such as the right to vote and the right to join the armed forces.

The defendants’ offence was extremely serious, negatively impacting national security and the image of Vietnam in the international community, the jury said.

According to the indictment, Nguyen Van Hai was the leader of the blog “the Freelance Journalists Club" that was set up for writing, disseminating and storing documents distorting the Party and State to sow suspicions and undermine people’s trust in the administration.

Hai had posted 26 articles containing anti-State content on the blog, while Tan, also a member of the blog, had launched 101 materials holding a grudge against the regime and offending high-ranking officials and State agencies.

Meanwhile, Phan Thanh Hai had been in charge of the blog’s science and law page, and had created another blog named “Anhbasaigon”. He wrote and posted 21 articles on these blogs that propagandized against the State and called for a change to the political system in Vietnam.

Phan Thanh Hai and Nguyen Van Hai had also taken part in a training course for non-violent struggle held in Thailand by a US-based Viet Tan, a terrorist organization.

Tuoi Tre News - September 25, 2012

Prison sentences handed down to bloggers in Vietnam

France strongly deplores the judgments handed down on Monday in Ho Chi Minh City to the 3 Vietnamese bloggers, Mr. Nguyen Van Hai, Ms. Ta Phong Tan and Mr. Phan Thanh Hai, who were sentenced respectively to 12 years, 10 years and 4 years in prison for opinions they thought could be freely expressed. France reaffirms its attachment to the freedom of expression and opinion - including on the Internet - throughout the world.

France Diplomatie - French Ministry of Foreign Affairs - September 24, 2012

Vietnam convicts 3 bloggers over posts

A Vietnamese court convicted three prominent bloggers and sentenced them to between four and 12 years in prison, the latest step in a crackdown against online dissent in the tightly policed communist state.

One of the defendants' lawyers, Ha Huy Son, said the three bloggers were found guilty of writing articles that opposed the government, diplomats said. Monday's verdict came after a one-day trial in Ho Chi Minh City.

Vietnam's government has stepped up its campaign against cyber-dissidents recently, ordering police to take action against three websites this month in what analysts and diplomats say is a bid to inculcate a sense of fear among the growing numbers of Vietnamese who are going online to obtain news and exchange opinions on events in the country.

"This is designed to create a chilling effect," said a Western diplomat. "The government doesn't want criticism to snowball." The U.S. Embassy issued a statement saying it was "deeply concerned" and urged the government to free all three dissidents.

The Vietnamese government said it had no comment.

Internet penetration rates are growing faster in Vietnam than in many other emerging nations. Around 34% of the country's 90 million people are online, a larger proportion than in neighbors such as Thailand and Indonesia.

But as Vietnam's booming economy slows and its debt problems worsen, the government is increasingly eager to rein in criticism and prevent online dissidents from attracting a larger following.

The crackdown is attracting world-wide attention, with the plight of the three prisoners convicted Monday gaining particular traction. U.S. President Barack Obama cited one of the bloggers, Nguyen Van Hai, this year in a speech urging more Internet freedoms around the world. The mother of one of the other detainees, meanwhile, burned herself to death in July in a protest against the charges filed against her daughter, Ta Phong Tan.

All three bloggers, including Phan Thanh Hai, belonged to the "Free Journalists Club," which writes prolifically about political, economic and social issues in Vietnam.

Mr. Nguyen Van Hai, alias Dieu Cay, was sentenced to 12 years in prison, while Ms. Tan was handed a 10-year sentence. Mr. Phan Thanh Hai, the only one of the trio who pleaded guilty, was given a four-year sentence. The heavy sentences could herald more arrests and convictions.

Vietnam's leaders are particularly wary of any accusations of corruption and malpractice as the country's economy continues to struggle, said Carlyle Thayer, a Vietnam expert at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra. In addition, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung is also anxious to suppress reports about infighting in the ruling politburo that have circulated online in recent months.

Human-rights groups sharply criticized the lengthy prison sentences. Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asian division at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said "these harsh sentences against bloggers are absolutely outrageous, and show the depth of the Vietnam government's intolerance of views that oppose its own."

By James Hookway - The Wall Street Journal - September 24, 2012