Page last updated at 11:56 GMT, Thursday, 21 January 2010

Vietnam's new breed of dissident

By Nga Pham
BBC Vietnamese Service

Democracy activists (L-R) Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, 43, Nguyen Tien Trung, 26, Le Thang Long, 42, and Le Cong Dinh, 41, on trial

Le Cong Dinh is not an ordinary Vietnamese dissident.

He is not a veteran communist, disillusioned with party ideology. He did not experience the full extent of the brutality of the Vietnam War nor the harshness of the economic impoverishment in the years following it.

Soft-spoken and charismatic, Dinh was also a successful lawyer, well-known for representing Vietnam in a number of high-profile international court cases.

He is married to one of the country's most beautiful women, Miss Vietnam 1998, Nguyen Thi Ngoc Khanh.

Neither do the other three defendants in Wednesday's high-profile trial really fit the mould. All of them are well-educated, eloquent, successful. "They are real intellectuals," said Nguyen Thanh Giang, another dissident in Hanoi.

Le Cong Dinh
As a lawyer, Dinh defended other activists and bloggers

But Le Cong Dinh, Nguyen Tien Trung, Tran Huynh Duy Thuc and Le Thang Long represent a new class of democracy campaigner - and could pose a serious threat to the regime for those exact personal attributes, as well as their connections with the West.

In Wednesday's trial, all four men were accused, and found guilty, of affiliation with "reactionary forces" overseas.

Two of them, Dinh and Trung, were educated in the United States and France, where friends and colleagues have been campaigning in their support.

Testifying before the court, Dinh said: "I have been influenced by Western ideas of democracy, freedom and human rights during my studies abroad."

'Peaceful evolution'

The one-day trial also showed a glimpse of Vietnam's attitude to the outside world.

As well as charges of subversion - including promoting ideas and plotting to overthrow the government - the defendants were accused of promoting "peaceful evolution".

This post-Cold War terminology is generally used to describe Western strategy to undermine socialist systems, and the use of it will send a loud and clear message to foreign governments.

It may be opening up its economy to the outside world, but the Vietnamese government insists it will manage social liberalisation at its own pace.

Democracy activist Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, 43, stands during his trial
Tran Huynh Duy Thuc was given the toughest sentence - 16 years in jail

Yet critics of the regime say tightening control over democratic freedoms only pushes Vietnam further away from the global community at a time when it needs more friends and allies - especially in light of China's increasing dominance in the region.

Some analysts also believe that the trial reflects an internal struggle within the ruling Communist Party, with the conservatives looking to seize the higher ground, especially in the run-up to the next party congress in January 2011.

"This is seen by the conservatives as an opportunity to pre-empt those in the party who would push for greater party democratisation and political liberalisation in society," says Carl Thayer, a prominent Vietnam expert in Australia.

Balancing act

The trial verdicts have drawn criticism from some Western governments.

British Foreign Office Minister Ivan Lewis said he was "deeply concerned".

"Nobody should be imprisoned for peacefully expressing their opinions. Verdicts like these only serve to harm Vietnam's international standing," he said.

US consul-general Kenneth Fairfax called for the dissidents' release.

Vietnamese newspapers, meanwhile, hailed the trail as just and fair.

Three of the defendants could have faced the death penalty, but all were given jail terms instead - the toughest sentence going to Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, who received a term of 16 years, the harshest sentence given to a Vietnamese dissident for some time.

Le Cong Dinh, who confessed to his wrongdoings in court, only received a five year sentence - which was seen in local media as demonstrating the humanity of the people's court.

But what remains unsaid is that among the four accused, Dinh holds the highest profile in the West.

Giving him the lowest jail term may be an attempted balancing act, suggesting that the Vietnamese leadership is only too aware of the controversy surrounding this trial.

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