HANOI (Reuters) - Vietnam jailed six people on Friday for advocating democracy after similar sentences to three others earlier in the week, moves that analysts say look choreographed to deter dissent in the run up to a major Communist meeting.
The six, including a leader of a banned pro-democracy group called Bloc 8406, were sentenced in one trial in the port city of Haiphong to prison terms ranging from two to six years for “conducting propaganda against the state”.
Earlier in the week, three people were convicted of the same crime in separate back-to-back trials in the capital Hanoi, and handed jail terms of three to four years.
All nine had hung banners on bridges in the two cities calling for multi-party elections in Vietnam. Prosecutors argued that such actions were illegal because pluralism would constitute a violation of the Vietnamese constitution, which says the Communist Party leads the state and society.
The trials were “bundled together for maximum deterrent effect”, said Carlyle Thayer, a Vietnamese politics expert at the University of New South Wales Australian Defence Force Academy.
“It is no coincidence that renewed repression coincides with advance preparations for the 11th Party congress. Party conservatives are trying to stem pressures to step up the pace of political reform in order to remain in power.”
The Vietnamese Communist Party holds a national congress once every five years to draw up a socio-political blueprint and make leadership changes. The 11th congress is due to take place in January 2011, and experts say jockeying is already under way.
Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, also linked the trials to the upcoming congress, calling the Vietnamese government “an intransigent and unaccountable regime that knows it can get away with flagrantly violating the rights of its citizens”.
“It’s essential that Vietnam’s donors weigh in directly with government authorities at the highest levels to strongly condemn Vietnam’s latest assault on free expression,” she said.
The trials have attracted the attention of several Western governments concerned about Vietnam’s human rights record and were attended by a handful of foreign diplomats.
But from an investor’s perspective, they are unlikely to cause alarm, economists said. Political stability has been one of Vietnam’s selling points.
“Does it make people feel queasy? Probably. But right now my feeling is that the government probably has pretty good control of things,” said one banker at a U.S. investment bank who declined to be identified by name.
Most investors know what they are getting into here, said one economist. “As long as there isn’t massive underlying dissatisfaction with the government, and no possibility of social instability, their investments will be fine,” she said.
But Thayer said there appears to be concern among some in Vietnam’s leadership about growing dissent.
“Those promoting repression have been unnerved both by the revival of dissent by Bloc 8406 members and by the growing coalescence of dissent across different issues such as human rights, bauxite mining and relations with China,” he said.
The trials were scheduled earlier but postponed, analysts say, so they would not coincide with President Nguyen Minh Triet’s trip to the United Nations and Foreign Minister Pham Gia Khiem’s meeting two weeks ago with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Editing by Jason Szep and Sugita Katyal