By imprisoning a highly influential blogger whose only weapon was his photo camera and laptop, the Vietnamese Government dealt a very harsh blow at freedom of expression.
The morning of September 24, 2012 must have been unforgettable for Binh Nhi, a 29-year-old who had just passed thousands of kilometers in a secret journey by train from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. Slightly overweight at his age, he was caught by the police, carried like a pig by four policemen to the station and was heavily beaten there while in custody. Not because he got involved in any criminal act, whatsoever. The only wrongdoing he committed was that he tried to approach the People’s Court of Ho Chi Minh City, where the trial against a very famous blogger was taking place that morning. Hundreds of policemen, both in uniform and plain clothes, were ubiquitous in the area to stop people from approaching the court. Ironically, the proceeding was said to be “public trial.”
Binh Nhi was not alone in being carted off to the station and beaten. Dozens of people, mostly bloggers and Facebookers who claimed themselves “freelance journalists”, including a priest, were stopped by the police on their way to the court and then taken away for interrogation. Many were harassed and beaten, including a young girl going by the name An Do Nguyen on Facebook, who was brutally punched and kicked until she nearly fainted and must be taken to hospital. Her T-shirt was even stripped from her body, because it carried the words, “Free Dieu Cay, freedom for the patriot.” (An Do Nguyen is the FB name of Nguyen Hoang Vi, a blogger who has been victim to police harassments and assaults in the recent years.)
Dieu Cay is the pen name of the blogger who was standing trial then. While he was in court that morning, his ex-wife and their son were kept outside, prevented from attending their own family member’s trial, despite their desperate and angry objection, and the son was stripped of his “Free Dieu Cay” T-shirt as well. A young policeman even shouted at them, “[You want] Freedom? Your freedom is my penis!”
After a trial that lasted for only three hours - too short it may seem for such an allegedly serious crime - Dieu Cay was sentenced 12 years in prison, while Ta Phong Tan, a woman blogger received 10 years, and Phan Thanh Hai, aka blogger AnhbaSG, 4 years. Analysts said AnhbaSG was given the slightest sentence for having admitted before the court that he was wrong, he felt remorse and would cut off all relationships with “anti-state elements.” This verdict for AnhbaSG was something his family and friends all knew ahead of the trial.
All of the three bloggers were convicted under Article 88 of the Penal Code of Vietnam, a vague provision making “anti-state propaganda” a crime.
Dieu Cay's son, Nguyen Tri Dung, and his ex-wife Duong Thi Tan
outside the September 24 trial court.
Dung was stripped of his Free Dieu Cay T-shirt.
Photo courtesy: Dan Lam Bao
The charisma of a pen
“Dieu Cay”, which means “Peasant’s Pipe”, is a very Vietnamese nickname that a Vietnamese blogger can think of. And it’s the nickname of Nguyen Van Hai, a man who is really like a peasant in the sense that he is easy-going, amiable, and warm-hearted - at least his friends think so.
Born on September 23, 1952 in the northern city of Hai Phong, Dieu Cay spent his youth in the Vietnam People’s Army in southwestern border battlefield in late 1970s. Dynamic as he was, Dieu Cay soon found ways of living after the war when he moved to the south and started up his own business, while the majority of northern Vietnamese people would in those days cling to the bureaucratic state apparatus and fade away in the public sector of a highly state-controlled economy. He used to run coffee-houses, sell cameras and other photo equipment, and rent out apartments. With such businesses, he led quite a well-off and sociable life. He had friends in various groups of the society: artistic circles, academic circles, students, as well as people from low classes. Most Dieu Cay’s friends said they were attracted by his charm, and that he is charismatic.
In 2005 Yahoo! 360° came to Vietnam after officially launched on June 24th in the US. This was the first time the 22 million Internet subscribers in Vietnam, mostly youths, experienced a totally new form of reading, writing, and in general, a forum where they could express their ideas relatively freely. The period from 2006 to 2008 was the boom years of Yahoo! 360°, the dawn of a whole new world of Internet media. While politics remained a sensitive area to most Vietnamese bloggers, since 2007 Vietnam began to witness growing concern about political issues, especially since tensions escalated between territorial claimants in the South China Sea, notably Vietnam and China.
Dieu Cay, in his fifties, adapted very quickly to the new media, and he proved to be an Internet-savvy man. In mid-2007, he developed his own Yahoo! 360° blog, to which he posted writings and photos of the life of people in contemporary Vietnam. For example, he told the story of how he got into trouble when the local People’s Committee alleged that his restaurant was using a foreign name; in fact, Mitau (the name of the restaurant) was just a central Vietnam’s dialect to mean “you and me”. His writings, with a sense of humor and bitter satire, reflected different aspects of a crippling rule of law, winning him high reputation as the first-ever famous political blogger in Vietnam.
One example was what happened to Dieu Cay himself from late 2006 to mid-2007. Around November 2006, he was involved in a dispute with one neighbour, an official of the local cell of the Communist Party, who appropriated part of one of Dieu Cay’s apartments. Dieu Cay posted the photos of his apartment to blog and distributed the text copies of the case among neighbours and friends, which attracted attention of the local people who all had antipathy against that communist cadre. He also reported the case to local police, but the police, having taken bribery from the communist neighbour, put a fine on Dieu Cay for “inciting social disorder” rather than returning the property to him. He objected and took a lawsuit to a local administrative court. The court of June 28, 2007 ended up with Dieu Cay losing the lawsuit, but the photos, the voices recorded, and all the happenings inside the court were posted to his blog, describing a spurious, laughter-provoking “rule of law” and earning him huge attention from the public.
On September 19, 2007, Dieu Cay and a few friends established the Free Journalists Network in Vietnam, FJNV. The idea of FJNV dated back from 2004 when a Communist Party member, also Dieu Cay’s friend, planned to set up an association of freelance journalists, but his application to form such an association scarcely received any feedback from authorities. Freedom of association, as are other freedom rights in Vietnam, is recognized in the Constitution but never realized in reality as it is hindered by many obstructive laws and regulations. So Dieu Cay precipitated the plan by founding FJNV “without permission”, and he developed its blog which he would use as a weapon similar to his personal one in the struggle for justice and freedom of Vietnamese citizens. With a laptop and a camera, he travelled to many places in Vietnam, talking to the disadvantaged of the society, including lost farmers and sweatshop workers, then writing stories about their life. He even exposed signals of corruption in the construction of Can Tho bridge that led to its collapse on September 26, 2007 in one of the most serious disasters in Vietnam’s construction history.
In December 2007, first protests by bloggers broke out in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, opposing China’s ratification of a plan to set up “Sansha City” to administer the disrupted Spratly and Paracel islands in South China Sea. Dieu Cay was a prominent figure when he attracted dozens of students who recognized the famous blogger and gathered around to listen to him. He was brutally detained by the police later on the way home.
Dieu Cay at a protest in HCMC in December 2007.
The woman in white on his left is Ta Phong Tan.
Photo courtesy: Dan Lam Bao
Although he was released at the end of the day, Dieu Cay would from that time on be put under tight police surveillance. He was harassed very often, his business sabotaged by strangers in different ways, say, guests going to his café would find it impossible to find a parking place - the police would come and ask them not to put their vehicles there. They also intimidated any potential tenants of Dieu Cay so that he could not rent out houses, and they forced Dieu Cay to submit contracts dated even 10 years before.
More seriously, Dieu Cay was regularly summoned to the police station for interrogation. Many interrogations lasted from 8am to 10pm with a lot of annoying queries about his activities and FJNV’s, his friends said. Above all, Dieu Cay was almost confined to his home as he was followed very closely. He even got hit in an accident that appeared to be deliberately caused by strangers. The mental tortures went on, but Dieu Cay made no appease. Things got worse and in around March, he left his home in Ho Chi Minh City to go on a travel, as his friends were told.
Subsequently there was a whole campaign of the police chasing Dieu Cay. On April 19, 2008, he was “urgently arrested”, as police put it, in an Internet café in the southern city of Da Lat. No one was there to witness, so there was no clue of what the arrest warrant was actually based on. “Dieu Cay's arrest on 19 April came just a few days before the Ho Chi Minh City leg of the Olympic torch relay for which the government insisted on 'absolute security' and sanctions against any 'trouble-makers.' We do not think it was a coincidence and we call for him to be released pending trial,” Reporters without Borders said on May 15, 2008.
Inappropriate legal procedures
Although the arrest was urgently taken, the house search was only conducted a few days later. All of Dieu Cay’s friends and family thought the search was just aimed at finding evidence his “anti-state activities,” but it was in vain, so the police turned to accusing Dieu Cay of “tax fraud.” Even in this case, however, they failed to follow a due justice process. Being handcuffed and secretly taken back to Ho Chi Minh City, put in custody without access to any lawyer or legal support, Dieu Cay was definitely declined all of his legal rights. The lawyer that Dieu Cay’s family hired later, Le Cong Dinh, who himself would be arrested just one year after and charged with attempting to overthrow the state, complained that he was not permitted to meet Dieu Cay during police investigation and not even notified of the trial date.
Dinh revealed that only a few days after arresting Dieu Cay did the police begin to seize papers, so it was unreasonable when the People's Procuracy (of Ho Chi Minh City) initiated the prosecution against Dieu Cay’s “tax fraud” “based on some documents,” as it had said before the house search. Prior to the arrest, moreover, Dieu Cay had not received any notice from the local tax department related to his alleged “tax evasion.” All of the questions he was asked during hours of investigations focused on his blogging activities, especially on FJNV.
Another lawyer who offered to defend Dieu Cay for free, Le Tran Luat, confronted police harassment and was also summoned for interrogation. The police questioned Le Tran Luat on his relationship with Dieu Cay, the motive behind the offer to defend free-of-charge, and his knowledge about the “outlawed FJNV.”
On top of that, Le Cong Dinh found out that Dieu Cay, in fact, did not commit tax evasion. Rather, it was the police who requested the local tax department not to receive any overdue tax from both the landlord and the tenant without police permission. The request was made as far back as February 25, 2008. In other words, a trap had been set up for Dieu Cay long before his arrest.
"The right to know"
On September 10, 2008, Dieu Cay was sentenced 2.5 years in prison by the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Court. Ironically, on October 18, 2010, blogger AnhbaSG, also an FJNV member, was arrested, just one day before Dieu Cay completed his prison term. Subsequently Dieu Cay remained in detention under the new charge of “spreading propaganda against the state.” A couple of question may be raised: How could Dieu Cay “spread propaganda against the state” during his 2.5 years of imprisonment? Would there be another charge waiting for him when he completes this second prison term? Would he survive after a dozen more years languishing in prison where he has been being totally isolated from the outside world? Not any concept of time, information, reading materials, privacy, social contacts (even with family), or hygiene foods at all – that’s the life in a typical Vietnamese prison.
Dieu Cay’s family also fell victim to government harassment. The police kept close eyes on his ex-wife, and she could not enjoy any free time with friends and acquaintances. Dieu Cay’s first son, Nguyen Tri Dung, was even confined in his home on the day of his final examinations, so that he failed to attend them to receive the degree.
A warning to bloggers?
In the months before the 2012 trial of Dieu Cay, an online petition was organized with thousands of people signing an open letter to President Truong Tan Sang, demanding “freedom for Dieu Cay”. Many bloggers produced black T-shirts with the slogan “Free Dieu Cay, freedom for the patriot”. The atmosphere was so tense that the police-dominated People's Procuracy had tried to keep the trial date secret.
The September 24 court won special attention in blogosphere and social networks (mostly Facebook) in Vietnam. Dozens of bloggers from other places traveled to Ho Chi Minh City and went to the People’s Court, trying to attend the supposedly public trial that morning despite police blockade. The police jammed cell phone signals, many people were intimidated, harassed, and beaten, their mobile phones and cameras seized. A whole campaign was conducted in state-owned media attacking Dieu Cay ad hominem, as well as other “anti-state” bloggers in general. Online commentators said that by giving Dieu Cay such a harsh sentence – famous and charismatic though he is– the authorities want to send a message that they will be very tough on those critical of the state, especially if those people prove to be uncontrollably influential and uncompromising. (AFP quoted an anonymous source as saying Dieu Cay and Ta Phong Tan “rejected totally” the charges against them.)
In the end, the appeal court of December 28 confirmed the sentence against the three bloggers.
The serious punishment, however, did not create the fear that the authorities expected from their citizens. Instead, anger spread virally over Vietnamese-language Internet. Even the “pro-state” faction (something similar to the Chinese “fifty-cent band” of Internet commentators) had to admit that the trial was so unfair to bloggers who just voiced their opinion in a peaceful way, using only a web-connected laptop. A great many people linked Dieu Cay’s case with a recent case of police abusing power, in which a police causing the death of one citizen not wearing motorbike helmet was sentenced only four years in prison. Many lamented that in Vietnam, “justice is just a travesty,” “blogging is now a dangerous job,” “if you hate someone, you’d better kill him rather than write bad things about him, because raising opinions here is more severely punished than murder.”
What lies ahead of Vietnam’s blogging community, after all? While the government, obsessed by an “Arab Spring” scenario, gives no sign of appeasement, and bloggers’ dissatisfaction keeps growing, a certain answer seems impossible. However, while the majority of people assume that democratization is an inevitable process with the expansion of globalization, it is unlikely that the Vietnamese Communist Party and their security apparatus have the same belief in the bright future of communism. The fight will go on.