This is a guest blog entry from Duy Hoang of Viet Tan. Viet Tan aims to bring about democratic changes in Vietnam through nonviolent means and civic engagement.
Two and a half years ago, in April 2008, police in Vietnam arrested Nguyen Van Hai and detained him secretly for several weeks. Mr. Hai, now 58-years old, blogged under the nickname Dieu Cay which means “the peasant’s water pipe.”
At the time, authorities denied targeting Dieu Cay for his writings even though he was then one of the country’s best known bloggers and government critics. Through his Yahoo 360 blog, Dieu Cay exposed government corruption, called for freedom of expression and was among the first Vietnamese to criticize a Chinese government decision to incorporate the Paracel and Spratly Islands—which are claimed by Vietnam and several other Asian countries— into an administrative unit under China’s Hainan island.
Dieu Cay was one of Vietnam’s pioneering citizen journalists. Blogging effectively took off in the country in 2007 as internet penetration reached a critical mass; the Yahoo platform became widely popular thanks to free Yahoo email accounts, Yahoo messenger and the 360 blog service; and a series of developments sparked independent reporting. Dieu Cay and his blogger friends formed the Free Journalists Club (Câu Lạc Bộ Nhà Báo Tự Do) which published an unsanctioned website.
Members of the Free Journalists Club joined the protests outside the Chinese embassy in Hanoi and consulate in Saigon on two consecutive Sundays in December 2007. The protests, which were eventually banned by the Hanoi government, attracted hundreds of youths and were largely coordinated online. During one of the rallies outside the Chinese consulate, a witness photographed Dieu Cay being dragged away by police. This iconic picture quickly spread through the internet.
Despite frequent police intimidation, Dieu Cay continued blogging and on January 19, 2008, appeared with other bloggers on the steps of the Opera House in the central quarter of Saigon. Wearing matching tshirts with the logo of the Olympic rings as handcuffs, the demonstrators called attention to China’s invasion and occupation of the Paracel Islands exactly 34 years before. Calling for civil disobedience, Dieu Cay proposed a boycott of the Beijing Torch Relay which was to parade through Vietnam on April 29, 2008.
Police summoned Dieu Cay for questioning and even threatened his personal safety by suggesting that they would not be responsible if Chinese agents chose to harm him. Before the Beijing Torch got to Vietnam, police officially arrested Dieu Cay on April 19, 2008. Authorities charged him with tax evasion and he was sentenced to 30 months in prison. Leading international human rights groups accused the Vietnamese authorities of applying trumped up charges to silence political speech. The Vietnamese government, on the other hand, insisted that Dieu Cay was a common criminal and there was no political connection to his conviction.
Last week, Dieu Cay’s friends eagerly anticipated his release from prison. They even initiated a campaign online referring to October 19, 2010 (the conclusion of Dieu Cay’s 30 month prison sentence) as “Vietnam Blogger Day.” But the 19th of October went by and Dieu Cay was not freed. According to Dieu Cay’s former wife, police recently raided his old home and have indicated that he would be kept in jail further under the new charge of “propaganda against the socialist state,” which is forbidden under Article 88 of the Vietnamese Criminal Code.
This is an ironic twist. The Vietnamese authorities originally insisted that blogger Dieu Cay was not arrested for his political activities but now they appear to confirm that Dieu Cay is being punished for his writings. Moreover, since he has been in jail for the last two and a half years one wonders what type of “propaganda” did Dieu Cay undertake?
The case of Dieu Cay is a worrisome example of “rule by law” in Vietnam where authorities use the legal system to justify their political control. Free speech advocates and everyone with a stake in the honesty of Vietnam’s legal system ought to join the movement to FREE DIEU CAY.