Vietnam dissident priest jailed for eight years

Hue, Vietnam - A dissident Roman Catholic priest in Vietnam was jailed for eight years Friday, yelling defiance to the last as the court convicted him of spreading propaganda against the communist state.

Pro-democracy activist Father Nguyen Van Ly, 60, was found guilty and sentenced together with four other advocates of multi-party democracy in a swift, half-day trial in the central city of Hue.

The priest -- who has been jailed three times since the 1970s for a total of 14 years -- was dragged into the courtroom in handcuffs and shouted angrily as a police officer hastily covered his mouth.

Ly was later ejected and sentenced while being held in a separate room.

The trial drew condemnation from diplomats, Vietnam watchers and human rights groups for the one-party state that has gone to great lengths over the past year to boost its international prestige.

It was the first of several trials expected over the coming months against prominent civil liberties advocates, also including Hanoi human rights lawyers Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thi Cong Nhan, detained earlier this month.

Prosecutors said Father Ly was a founding member of the banned "Bloc 8406" pro-democracy coalition, named after its April 8 launch last year, and also a driving force behind the outlawed Vietnam Progression Party (VPP).

The four other defendants, all declared members of the VPP, were given sentences from an 18-month suspended jail term to six years behind bars.

Judge Bui Quoc Hiep said their "criminal behaviour is very serious, damaging the sustainability of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, undermining national security and splitting relations between church followers and the people."

Authorities took the unusual step of allowing foreign media and diplomats into the courtroom for the first and the final few minutes of the trial and letting them follow proceedings via closed-circuit television.

But the audio was briefly cut after Ly loudly criticised the "communist court" and labelled the trial the "law of the jungle" among other angry shouts.

Foreign diplomatic observers swiftly condemned the trial.

"We call upon the Vietnamese government to allow individuals to peacefully exercise their legitimate right to freedom of speech without fear of recrimination," said US Deputy Consul Kenneth Chern.

Vietnam expert Carl Thayer, of the Australian Defence Force Academy, said the trial "was as predictable as it was reprehensible. Communist may be passe but authoritarian rule is not."

Thayer said Vietnam had "put considerable capital into polishing its international reputation and prestige," including hosting an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit and entering the World Trade Organisation.

"The imprisonment of Father Ly and several of his associates, to be followed by more show trials, will take the gloss off these efforts," Thayer said.

Police raided Ly's residence on February 18 and seized computers, mobile phone cards and other equipment that was exhibited as evidence in court.

Ly's co-defendants -- party committee chairman Nguyen Phong, 32, technician Nguyen Binh Thanh, 51, office secretary Hoang Thi Anh Dao, 21, and teacher Le Thi Le Hang, 44 -- were convicted of the same charges.

Phong received six years in jail, Thanh five, and Dao and Hang suspended sentences of two years and 18 months respectively.

The judge said earlier that the five could defend themselves, but cut them off after a few sentences or when they sought to present their political views.

Thanh, asked if he had a final message, said, "What I did exactly followed international treaties and law."

Phong told the court: "For the Vietnamese nation, I will continue to fight for the values of freedom and democracy."

Reacting to the jailing, Reporters Without Borders called "on the European Union to suspend its cooperation programmes in judicial matters."

The Paris-based group also also said it would ask the White House to put Vietnam back on its list of countries that restrict freedom of opinion and religion.

Amnesty International's Tim Parritt said the trial was "indicative of a broader crackdown on dissent" that has intensified in Vietnam since the November APEC meeting.