The defendants, all in their late fifties, were found guilty of breaching an article of the criminal code that rights groups and Western governments say is routinely used by the communist country to stifle free speech, against its international commitments.

State-run online news media said the women had previously protested about land disputes. They were arrested in July 2014 while demonstrating outside the U.S. consulate in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, the capital of the now-defunct Republic of Vietnam.

North Vietnam toppled the U.S.-backed democratic South in 1975 and formed one nation under communism, an event marked domestically as Vietnam's reunification.

The prison terms handed down on Wednesday ranged from three years to four and a quarter years, plus two or three years of house arrest upon their release, media said.

The verdict followed a similar case last year, when a man was jailed for 15 months for "disturbing public order" when he wore a uniform of the defeated army of South Vietnam.

Rights groups and the United Nations expressed outrage last week over Vietnam's use of criminal laws to jail two political bloggers for "abusing democratic freedom". The United States embassy described it as "disturbing".

By Martin Petty - Reuters - March 30, 2016

Vietnam Jails 3 women for waving flags of former South

A Vietnamese court has sentenced three women who held up the flags of the defeated U.S.-backed South Vietnam to up to four years in prison on charges of spreading anti-state propaganda, media reported Wednesday.

The women were convicted of holding anti-state banners, the flags and chanting anti-state slogans outside the United State diplomatic mission in Ho Chi Minh City in July 2014, Thanh Nien newspaper reported.

Their trial lasted half a day Wednesday. Ngo Thi Minh Uoc, 57, got four years, and Nguyen Thi Tri and Nguyen Thi Be Hai, both 58, were given three years in prison by the People's Court in Ho Chi Minh City.

The newspaper said the three were also given two years of house arrest after serving their sentences.

It quoted the verdict as saying their action was "very serious, infringing on national security, distorting, instigating, causing suspicion and mistrust of the people in the (Communist) Party and state."

Such open defiance of the government involving waving the flags of former South Vietnam in the former capital of Saigon is extremely rare.

The three women previously had been fined for disturbing public order by participating in illegal protests, it said.

The sentences came a week after a court in Hanoi sentenced a prominent blogger to five years in prison for posting anti-state writings.

International human rights groups and the U.S. and other governments often criticize Vietnam for jailing dissidents, but Hanoi maintains that it only punishes only those who break the law.

The Associated Press - March 30, 2016