One of Vietnam’s most prominent dissidents lost his court appeal on Tuesday against imprisonment for tax evasion, as dozens of supporters protested outside the court against the communist state’s crackdown on dissent.
Scores of police encircled the Hanoi People’s Court of Appeals, which after a half-day trial upheld a 2 ½-year jail sentence for Catholic lawyer and blogger Le Quoc Quan, whose conviction in October was condemned by the United States and denounced by rights campaigners as politically motivated.
“The defendant did not show regret and took a disrespectful attitude towards the court,” said court president Nguyen Van Son, confirming the jail term and a fine of around US$57,000.
His lawyer Ha Huy Son quoted judges as saying they found no new evidence, and that the conviction by the intermediate court was well founded.
The lawyer said Quan maintained his innocence throughout the trial.
“I told the court that the case should not be criminalised, but should be resolved through administrative procedures instead,” Son said in a telephone interview. “But the court rejected my arguments.”
The television feed to the court’s observation room was cut off immediately after the verdict.
Quan earlier told the court he was “completely innocent” of the charges against him. “I am the victim of a political conspiracy. I object to this trial,” said Quan, who was wearing a thick coat and jumper in the courtroom.
Quan – who is on the 17th day of a hunger strike, according to his brother – looked tired and thin as he stood in the dock and appeared to swoon at one point, prompting security guards to prop him up.
Another counsel for the defendant, Bui Quang Nghiem, told the court that the tax evasion charges were a joke.
“If you want to try Le Quoc Quan for his activism, you don’t need to bring him to court for tax evasion,” he said.
The United States said it was “deeply concerned” by the decision to uphold the conviction, which it called inconsistent with Vietnam’s international commitments to freedom of expression.
“The use of tax laws by Vietnamese authorities to imprison government critics for peacefully expressing their political views is disturbing,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.
“We call on the government to release prisoners of conscience and allow all Vietnamese to peacefully express their political views,” she said.
The 43-year-old lawyer, who blogged on a range of sensitive topics including civil rights, political pluralism and religious freedom, has been in detention since December 2012. He was detained in 2007 for three months on his return from a US-government-funded fellowship in Washington.
Quan’s younger brother, Le Quoc Quyet, said outside the court that the family had not been given permission to attend the hearing.
Shouting “Free Le Quoc Quan” and waving signs calling for the US-trained lawyer’s release release, around 150 people gathered outside the court as his appeal hearing got under way, causing rush-hour traffic chaos.
The scale of the protest was unusual in Vietnam, where authorities keep a tight lid on dissent. Hundreds of confused commuters were caught up in the early-morning protest.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch had called on the court to drop what it called “trumped-up charges of tax evasion” and immediately release the human-rights lawyer.
“Unconditionally releasing Le Quoc Quan would be a welcome step to show the government is sincere about ending the persecution of critics,” Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement earlier in the week.
The group said the number of people sentenced in political trials had increased every year since 2010 and at least 63 people were imprisoned for peaceful political expression last year.
Vietnam, a one-party state, is regularly denounced by rights groups and Western governments for its intolerance of political dissent and systematic violations of freedom of religion.
Reporters Without Borders said earlier this month that Vietnam was second only to China in the number of bloggers it detained, with at least 34 currently behind bars.