Tuesday 12 November 2013

Impunity - Crimes against Freedom of Expression

Below is an article of mine for the second commemoration of the International Day to End Impunity in 2012.

Impunity means crimes against freedom of expression that are unpunished, ranging from intimidation, censorship, harassment, defamation, to assault and battery, imprisonment, even murder. In committing these crimes, the perpetrators aim at preventing citizens from exercising freedom of expression, and they are confident that they can do so without being held responsible to the law.

The International Day to End Impunity of November 23, therefore, is meant to advocate for the eradication of crimes against freedom of expression.Its first anniversary was marked in 2011 in remembrance of the 58 victims, including at least 34 journalists, killed in the 2009 Maguindanao massacre in the Philippines.

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The morning of 24 September must have been an unforgettable for Binh Nhi, a 29-year-old who had just secretly traveled thousands of kilometers by train from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. Binh Nhi was caught by the police and was heavily beaten in custody. The wrong he committed was that he wanted to go to the People’s Court of Ho Chi Minh City, where the trial of a very famous blogger was taking place that morning. Hundreds of policemen, both uniformed and plain clothed, were ubiquitous in the area to stop people from approaching the court, even though it was officially a ‘public’ trial.

Dieu Cay is the pen name of the blogger on trial. While he was in court that morning, his ex-wife and son were kept outside the court and prevented from attending the hearing, despite their desperate and angry objections. Police even ripped off the son’s “Free Dieu Cay” t-shirt. A young policeman taunted them shouting, “[You want] Freedom? Your freedom is my penis!”

After a trial that lasted for only three hours, Dieu Cay was sentenced 12 years to prison, while Ta Phong Tan, a woman blogger, received 10 years, and Phan Thanh Hai, aka AnhbaSG, four years. Analysts said AnhbaSG was given the lighter sentence for having admitted before the court that he was wrong, he felt remorse and would cut off all relationships with “reactionary elements.” This verdict for Anhba SG 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, penalizing the vague crime of “conducting anti-state propaganda”.

Blogger’s charisma

Dieu Cay”, which means “peasant pipe”, is a very popular Vietnamese nickname that any Vietnamese blogger can use. And it’s the nickname of chosen by Nguyen Van Hai, an easy-going, amiable, warm-hearted and charismatic person, according to his friends.

Born on 23 September 1952 in the northern city of Hai Phong, Dieu Cay spent his youth in the Vietnam People’s Army in the southwestern border battlefield in the late 1970s. After the war, Dieu Cay chose to start his own business—running a coffeehouse, selling cameras and other photo equipment, and renting out apartments—instead of joining the bureaucracy, which was the common path of many.

When Yahoo! 360° came to Vietnam in 2005 after its official launch in the US, it was the first time for the country’s 22 million internet subscribers, mostly youths, to experience a new form of reading, writing, and expressing their ideas and opinions. While politics remained a sensitive area to most Vietnamese bloggers, the country began to witness since 2007 a growing concern about political issues, especially with the escalation of tensions on conflicting territorial claims between Vietnam and China.

Dieu Cay, in his 50s, proved to be internet-savvy, adapting very quickly to the new media. 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 the foreign name, “Mitau”, which simply meant “you and me” in a central Vietnam dialect. His writings, with a sense of humour and bitter satire, reflected different aspects of a crippling rule of law, winning him a high reputation as the first-ever famous political blogger in Vietnam.

In 2007, Dieu Cay and a few friends established the Free Journalists Club (FJC) without official permission. (While the Vietnam Constitution recognizes freedom of association, it is not realized because of many obstacles for groups to organize themselves.) He also developed its blog, which, similar to his personal one, became a potent weapon in the struggle for justice and freedom of Vietnamese citizens. With a laptop and a camera, he travelled to many places in Vietnam to write stories on disadvantaged communities, including dispossessed farmers and sweatshop workers. Dieu Cay, for instance, exposed the beginnings of corruption in the construction of Can Tho bridge, which collapsed in September 2007 and is of the most serious disasters in Vietnam’s construction history.

The web of persecution

One example of government persecution against Dieu Cay occurred around November 2006. He was involved in a dispute with a neighbor, and an official of the local cell of the Communist Party, who appropriated part of one of Dieu Cay’s apartments. Dieu Cay posted photos of his apartment to his blog and distributed copies of the case among neighbors and friends. This attracted attention of the local people who were all displeased with the communist cadre. He also reported the case to local police, who, instead of returning the property to him, fined Dieu Cay instead for “inciting social disorder”. He objected and took a lawsuit to a local administrative court, which he lost in June 2007. In the process however, he blogged photos, voice recordings, and court proceedings, describing a spurious, laughter-provoking “rule of law” and, earning him even bigger attention from the public.

On December 2007, bloggers protested for the first time in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, opposing China’s plan to set up a “Sansha City” to administer the disputed Spratly and Paracel islands in South China Sea. Dieu Cay, who was already prominent by then, managed to attract the participation of dozens of students.He was brutally detained by the police later on the way home.

Although he was released at the end of the day, Dieu Cay would from that time be placed under tight police surveillance. He was often harassed, his business sabotaged by strangers in different ways. More seriously, Dieu Cay was regularly summoned to the police station for interrogation. His friends say many interrogations lasted from 8am to 10pm, with a lot of queries about his activities and FJC’s. Because of this, Dieu Cay was almost confined to his home. When the pressure got worse, Dieu Cay decided to leave.

Subsequently there was a campaign of the police chasing after 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 witnessed the arrest, so there is no information about the charges contained in the warrant. International group Reporters Without Borders said it was no coincidence that Dieu Cay’s arrest 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 ‘troublemakers.’

Dieu Cay was handcuffed and secretly taken back to Ho Chi Minh City, placed in custody without access to any lawyer or legal support. The lawyer that Dieu Cay’s family hired later, Le Cong Dinh, complained that he was not permitted to meet Dieu Cay during police investigation and not even notified of the trial date.

The lawyer said the house search was only conducted a few days after his arrest. All of Dieu Cay’s friends and family thought the search was just aimed at finding evidence of his “anti-state activities”. Not finding anything, authorities then accused him of tax fraud. Even then, they failed to follow due process.

Since the police only began to seize papers as few days after the arrest, it was improbable that charges by the People’s Procuracy for tax fraud to be “based on some documents”, as it had said before the house search. Prior to the arrest, Dieu Cay was not served any notice from the local tax department related to his alleged tax evasion. All of the questions he was asked during the hours of investigations focused on his blogging activities, especially on the FJC.

Le Cong Dinh also 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 Dieu Cay and his tenant without police permission. The request was made as early 25 February 2008. In other words, the tax fraud case was trap set up for Dieu Cay months before his arrest.

Dinh himself would be arrested just one year after and charged with attempting to overthrow the state.

Another lawyer, Le Tran Luat, who offered to free legal assistance to Dieu Cay, experienced 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 FCJ.”

On 10 September 2008, Dieu Cay was sentenced 30 months in prison by the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Court. Ironically, on 18 October 2010, just one day before Dieu Cay completed his prison term, blogger AnhbaSG, also an FJC member, was arrested.

Dieu Cay would remain in detention under the new charge of “spreading propaganda against the state.” His family has also been subject to state harassment.

A warning to bloggers

In the months before the September 2012 trial of Dieu Cay, an online petition drew thousands of people to sign an open letter to President Truong Tan Sang, demanding for Dieu Cay’s freedom. 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 24 September trial won unprecedented attention in Vietnam’s blogosphere and social networks (mostly Facebook). 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 despite the police blockade. The police jammed cell phone signals; many people were intimidated, harassed, and beaten, their mobile phones and cameras seized. The state-owned media launched a campaign 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, the authorities wanted to send a message that they will be very tough on those critical of the state.

The heavy punishment, however, did not create the fear that the authorities expected among the citizens. Instead, anger spread virally over the Vietnamese-language internet. Even some members of blogging communities usually supportive of the state had to admit that the trial was unfair to bloggers who just voiced their opinion in a peaceful way, using only a web-connected laptop.

Many people contrasted Dieu Cay’s penalties with a case of police abuse of power, in which a police causing the death of one citizen not wearing a motorbike helmet was sentenced to 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.”