Vietnam charged a prominent human-rights lawyer and three other activists with subversion — a charge that potentially carries the death penalty and intensifies the government’s campaign against political dissent in the tightly controlled but economically volatile country.
The official Than Nien newspaper reported Wednesday that Le Cong Dinh, a 41-year-old, Ho Chi Minh City-based lawyer who built a reputation defending human-rights activists, was charged with attempting to overthrow the Communist state. Three other activists were charged with the same crime — a more severe charge than the charge of spreading of antigovernment propaganda, for which they all were arrested in June.
Vietnamese officials weren’t immediately reachable for comment.
The elevated charges come amid a drive to root out dissent in Vietnam as its leaders grapple with a worsening inflation problem and a series of currency devaluations.
For the past decade, Vietnam’s leaders have tried to follow China by promoting economic growth without opening the door to the kinds of political and social freedoms that have accompanied economic liberalization in other countries.
But in the past two years, a dramatic spike in inflation and the impact of the global financial crisis have provoked strikes and protests. Government plans to allow Chinese companies to mine aluminum ore in the country, meanwhile, have provoked a widespread, Internet-based campaign against the government.
Marxist hard-liners in the Communist Party’s ruling politburo now are flexing their muscle ahead of Jan. 11’s Party Congress, which will set Vietnam’s economic and political direction for the following five years. As a result, repression is increasing, and, separately, the Ministry of Finance is considering imposing price controls on foreign and private companies to help contain inflation.
At the same time, people familiar with the situation say, Vietnam has instructed Internet service providers to block access to popular social-networking Web sites such as Facebook and Twitter in the past few months, while the police have detained and later released several well-known bloggers.
The Than Nien newspaper said the indictment against the activists noted that their alleged attempt to bring down the government by using the Internet was “particularly serious.”
Mr. Dinh, the human-rights lawyer, has the highest profile of the four defendants. A former vice chairman of the Ho Chi Minh City bar association who studied law at Tulane University, he made an impassioned defense of free speech when he represented two other human-rights lawyers who were jailed for spreading propaganda in 2007.
The U.S., European Union and human-rights groups such as Amnesty International have called for his immediate release since his June arrest.
The other defendants are engineer and Internet activist Nguyen Tien Trung and two Ho Chi Minh City businessmen, Tran Huynh Duy Thuc and Le Thanh Long. Prosecutors accuse all of them of being members of the Vietnam Democratic Party, a U.S.-based organization.
Prosecutors also accuse Mr. Dinh of joining a three-day training course with a California-based pro-democracy group called Viet Tan. Vietnam’s government considers Viet Tan to be a terrorist organization.
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