Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Vietnam Sentences Songwriters to Prison

Vietnam sentenced two songwriters to several years in prison Tuesday for posting songs online that a court judged to be antigovernment propaganda, the latest convictions in a mounting crackdown against online dissent in the communist country.

Vo Minh Tri, better known as Viet Khang, and Tran Vu Anh Binh were convicted at a one-day trial in Ho Chi Minh City and sentenced to four years and six years in prison, respectively, according to their lawyer, Tran Vu Hai. The songs, some seen as critical of government intimidation and praising the courage of dissidents, were posted on video-sharing site YouTube. They denied being political activists, their lawyer said.

The convictions came a month after three bloggers were sentenced to between four and 12 years in prison on similar charges, a crackdown on online dissent that has intensified over the year as Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has come under criticism inside and outside the ruling party in part due to to the weakening economy and a widening wealth gap.

Human-rights groups criticized Tuesday's ruling. "Vietnam's escalating crackdown on freedom of expression has now reached the ranks of musicians, showing that even singing about ideas opposed by the government will see the offender condemned to a long prison term," said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division.

The songwriters had been held in custody for many months before their trial and are currently jailed in Ho Chi Minh City. They have 15 days to appeal the judgment.

In one song, Mr. Tri sang in condemnation of police officers who detained anti-China protesters at a time of heightened tensions over conflicting claims in the South China Sea. But Mr. Hai, his lawyer, said that Mr. Tri told the court that he was not an activist and that his songs reflected "a time when China had very aggressive acts against Vietnam."

Internet penetration rates are quickly rising in Vietnam—now at 34% of the 90 million-strong population, which includes about 8.5 million Facebook users, according to digital agency We Are Social. But as more turn to the relatively unregulated online space to air dissenting views, the government has become increasingly insistent on reining in criticisms. The trend has captured the attention of U.S. leaders, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who criticized Vietnam's human-rights record during a visit in July.

Human Rights Watch urged European Council President Herman Van Rompuy to use a three-day visit starting Wednesday to pressure Vietnam to loosen controls on free speech and to free prisoners convicted of political acts. The bloc is Vietnam's third largest trading partner, after China and the U.S., with imports from the Southeast Asian country totaling €12.8 billion (US $16.5 billion) at the end of 2011.

Write to Shibani Mahtani at
A version of this article appeared October 31, 2012, on page A12 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Vietnam Sentences Songwriters To Prison.

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