HANOI (Reuters) - A court in Vietnam on Thursday jailed four Vietnamese for terms ranging from two to 2-1/2 years each for "organising others to flee abroad illegally" after Australia sent back their group of asylum seekers, their lawyer said.
The 46 asylum seekers were aboard a small vessel intercepted off Australia's remote west coast last year and were returned to Vietnam as a result of negotiations between the two countries.
The defendants, two men and two women, were crossing the border illegally for the first time in July 2015 and their 42 Vietnamese companions were relatives and acquaintances, lawyer Vo An Don told Reuters.
"The verdict is too heavy and lacks humanity," Don said by telephone, adding that the defendants were likely to appeal against it. "They are too poor and just want a better life. They didn't arrange it for money."
Vietnam's foreign ministry did not immediately respond to Reuters' request for comment.
A spokesman for Australia's department of Immigration and Border Protection said it was confident the Vietnamese government was upholding its assurance not to prosecute any of the returned people for their illegal departure.
"It is our understanding these prosecutions do not relate to the illegal departure of those returned, but relate only to a small number of individuals who authorities allege are responsible for organisation of the venture," the spokesman told Reuters on condition of anonymity, in line with departmental protocol.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said the action violated defendants' fundamental right under international law to leave their own country, however.
"Vietnam has blatantly broken its promise to the Australian government not to prosecute boat returnees," said the group's Australia director, Elaine Pearson.
Some of the returnees said that on their arrival in Vietnam, a Vietnamese official assured the group in front of the Australian consulate's representatives that they would not be arrested or detained, according to lawyer Don and HRW.
Vietnam has been rebuked for its poor record on human rights, with dissidents, bloggers and religious figures being jailed in recent years.
U.S. President Barack Obama chided Vietnam on political freedoms this week, after critics of its communist-run government were prevented from meeting him during his first visit to the country.
Reporting by Hanoi Newsroom and Matt Siegel in Sydney; Editing by Clarence Fernandez