HANOI A legal scholar who sued Vietnam's prime minister and called for an end to one-party rule was sentenced on Monday to seven years in prison in one of the Communist country's most important political trials in years.
The Hanoi People's Court convicted Cu Huy Ha Vu, the 53-year-old son of a Vietnamese revolutionary leader, of spreading propaganda against the state.
He was charged under Article 88 of the Vietnamese criminal code, which bans what it calls propaganda against the state. Critics contend that the article is regularly abused by authorities to silence dissent.
After serving seven years in jail, Vu will be under house-arrest for three more years. Under the charges, he faced up to 12 years in jail.
Before Vu was pronounced guilty, one of his lawyers, Tran Vu Hai, was escorted out of the courtroom by police after objecting to the court's handling of the case, according to a witness account. His three other lawyers left
shortly afterwards in protest, leaving Vu to defend himself.
Police detained human rights lawyer Le Quoc Quan and pro-democracy activist Pham Hong Son who were among about two dozen supporters congregating outside the courthouse, witnesses said. Police later cordoned off streets around the building.
Quan could not be reached by telephone.
In Vietnam, it is not uncommon for people who advocate political change or challenge the government to be detained and imprisoned. Vu's case has garnered attention at home and abroad because of his pedigree.
He is the son of the late Cu Huy Can, a famous poet who served as a parliamentarian and government minister and was a colleague of Communist revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh.
Vu gained notoriety when he sued Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in June 2009 over controversial government plans to mine and process bauxite with Chinese help.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said this was the most important political case in the last several years.
"Cu Huy Ha Vu is clearly someone who is from within the revolutionary tradition and the revolutionary elite of this society," Robertson said. "By going after him they are really stepping further than they have gone before. The crackdown is intensifying."
Authorities stepped up suppression of dissent in the months before a Communist Party congress in January, analysts said.
At the end of Monday's six-hour trial, court president Nguyen Huu Chinh said Vu's behaviour was harmful to society.
"He was born into a revolutionary family, but he did not develop (the tradition)," he told the court, according to a pool report. "His behaviour rejected the achievements of the nation under the leadership of the Communist Party of Vietnam."
Over the weekend, hundreds of Catholics held candlelight prayers at churches in Hanoi for Vu, who tried to represent Catholics embroiled in a land dispute with the government in central Vietnam last year. The government blocked him.
Vu's wife, Nguyen Thi Duong Ha, said he would appeal Monday's conviction.
"This case is totally against the law and so the result today is totally meaningless," she told Reuters.
A foreign diplomat who declined to be identified said the seven-year sentence was relatively harsh for an Article 88 conviction.
Weeks before his arrest last November, Vu filed another suit against Dung, this time claiming that new government guidelines restricting the scope of citizens' petitions were unconstitutional.
Vu, who holds a PhD from the Sorbonne, had also sought an amendment to Article 4 of the Vietnamese constitution, which gives legal backing to the Communist Party's monopoly on power.
Analysts say Vu's family links had shielded him from trouble over the years. Vu worked with the government regularly, including the Foreign Ministry, until last year, and even nominated himself to become a member of parliament.
(Editing by Jason Szep and Richard Borsuk)