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Vietnam puts 4 democracy activists on trial

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — A group of Vietnamese democracy activists went on trial Wednesday, possibly facing the death penalty for promoting a multi-party state, an act the nation's communist government regards as treason.

Three of the defendants, including a leading human rights lawyer, could be sentenced to the firing squad for their roles in creating organizations to compete with the Communist Party. The fourth, who is being tried as an accomplice, could face 15 years.

They are accused of collaborating with Vietnamese exile groups and "hostile forces" online to promote the Democratic Party of Vietnam and unseat the Communist Party, which maintains absolute control in Vietnam.

The trial comes during one of Vietnam's periodic crackdowns against dissent. Some observers have speculated that the latest crackdown is the result of jockeying among political factions in advance of next year's Communist Party congress, which takes place every five years.

It is virtually unheard of for political defendants to be acquitted in Vietnam. The main issue to be determined at trial involves the length of the sentence. They have been charged under Article 79 of Vietnam's criminal code with "carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people's administration."

One defendant is one of Vietnam's best-known lawyers, Le Cong Dinh, a U.S.-trained attorney and former vice chairman of the Ho Chi Minh City bar association. In addition to handling high-profile human rights cases, he once represented Vietnamese fish farmers fighting an unfair trade complaint brought by U.S. catfish growers.

During closing arguments at a 2007 human rights trial in Hanoi, Dinh, 41, made a highly unusual public plea for freedom of expression.

Dinh, who studied law at Tulane University on a Fulbright scholarship, is accused of going to Bangkok to attend a seminar on nonviolent political change organized by Viet Tan, an international pro-democracy network with members inside and outside Vietnam. Authorities say they also found a draft of a new constitution for Vietnam when they raided Dinh's Ho Chi Minh City law office in June.

Vietnam's government considers Viet Tan a terrorist organization, but U.S. officials say there is no evidence to support that view.

According to reports in Vietnam's state-controlled media, prosecutors have said the charges against Dinh constitute a "particularly serious violation of national security."

On the eve of the trial, Viet Tan issued a statement condemning what it called the "arbitrary charges" against Dinh and other democracy activists.

"The people of Vietnam have the right to discuss and advocate for the political system that best serves them," the statement said. "Viet Tan is committed to empowering Vietnamese to effect social change through peaceful, nonviolent means."

Other defendants are Nguyen Tien Trung, 26, who organized a pro-democracy student group while studying in France; and Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, 43, an Internet entrepreneur from Ho Chi Minh City. Another Internet entrepreneur, Le Thang Long of Hanoi, is accused in an accomplice role.

Foreign reporters and diplomats were not allowed to enter the courtroom, but could watch the two-day trial on closed-circuit television in a separate room at the Ho Chi Minh City People's Court. They were prohibited from bringing mobile phones, recording devices or cameras.

In recent months, Vietnam has also arrested several bloggers and blocked the popular social networking site Facebook.

Last month, authorities convicted democracy advocate Tran Anh Kim of subversion and sentenced him to 5.5 years in prison for violating Article 79. In October, nine others were convicted of violating Article 88, a lesser charge that prohibits spreading propaganda against the state.

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