Activists convicted in Vietnam crackdown on dissent

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BANGKOK -- A court in central Vietnam convicted 14 democracy activists Wednesday of plotting to overthrow the government and sentenced them to prison terms ranging from three to 13 years, in what human rights groups said was the largest subversion case to be brought in years.

The defendants are bloggers, writers and political and social activists accused of links to a banned U.S.-based pro-democracy group that the government accuses of seeking to overthrow it.

Nguyen Thi Hue, a defense lawyer, told The Associated Press in Vietnam that three defendants in the two-day trial in the city of Vinh, in Nghe An province, had been sentenced to 13 years, and that 11 others had received terms of three to eight years. One of the three-year terms was suspended.

The charges of "activities aimed at overthrowing the people's administration," of "undermining of national unity" and of participating in "propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam" have often been brought against dissidents in a government crackdown that has waxed and waned over the years.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, said this was the largest group to be brought to trial together in recent times. All were arrested in 2011 and had been in custody since then.

"This is part of an ongoing, deepening crackdown we've been seeing for the past year and a half or two years," Mr. Robertson said. "These people are bloggers, land activists, have attended or tried to attend dissident trials, have been involved in dissident activities including supporting poor people and people with disabilities." He added: "This is a message to other dissidents and bloggers that Vietnam means business."

He said the defendants had been charged after attending a training course in Bangkok held by Viet Tan, an organization that in the 1980s led a resistance movement against the Vietnamese Communist government, but that for the past few decades has declared that it is committed to peaceful political reform in Vietnam.

The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi said in a statement that it was "deeply troubled" by the convictions and called them "part of a disturbing human rights trend in Vietnam."

A number of the defendants are members of the Redemptorist group in the Roman Catholic Church, which has been engaged in community service and has taken up the causes of land seizures and corruption.

Some defendants have participated in peaceful protests in support of other dissidents who were on trial or in relation to China.

Protests have grown in recent years over China's claims to disputed territory in the South China Sea and over a major bauxite plant run by China in Vietnam's central highlands. The government has cracked down on demonstrations and Internet commentary for fear that they could veer out of control.

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