TRAN HUYNH DUY THUC TRIAL
I. CASE OVERVIEW
1. Situation leading to Tran Huynh Duy Thuc’s arrest
In 2002, EIS, Inc. – a Vietnamese IT joint-stock company where Tran Huynh Duy Thuc was the CEO – established 3 subsidiaries of the same name One Connection in Vietnam, Singapore and USA (San Jose, California). While One Connection Singapore quickly rose as a notable Internet telecommunications services provider in the region, channeling back large revenue to Vietnam, on its motherland, One Connection Vietnam was met with indifference or even hostility. In March 2009, the Ho Chi Minh City’s department of Information and Communication (DIC) issued an administrative decision in which One-Connection Vietnam must desist from providing its services and have its facilities confiscated on the ground that phone-to-phone service had not been allowed in Vietnam.
Unable to tolerate with such a decision, the company appealed to the ministry of Information and Communication. At this point, DIC ran short of solid legal arguments, thus once again resorting to vague “threats of national security.” By May, with lawyer Le Cong Dinh as its legal commander, One Connection Vietnam was ready to file a case against DIC to the Ho Chi Minh City’s administrative court, while being in the process of filing another case to the Singaporean tribunal.
On Sunday, May 24th 2009, Tran Huynh Duy Thuc was about to submit all necessary litigation papers to the court the next day when he was suddenly arrested at his house on the initial ground of having committed theft of telecommunication service. However, failing to find any evidence of theft of telecommunication service, the authorities had to finally drop the charge in December 2009.
2. Pre-trial investigatory phase
In the investigatory phase leading up to the first trial, there was a series of severe abuses of the justice system in the case regarding Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, Le Cong Dinh, Le Thang Long and Nguyen Tien Trung. First of all, the harsh conditions of physical restraint that Thuc endured during the pre-trial detention in order for him to admit guilty in exchange for better conditions of detention contravened article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Vietnam is a party; in particular, there was minimal exposure to fresh air and direct sunlight while toilet facilities without water supply were incorporated within the cell. Second, before the first trial took place, the defendants were forced to sign their confessions, which were subsequently broadcast on television in August 2009. Third, impartiality was not upheld in the investigatory phase as officials at the Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security and the Criminal Investigation Unit deliberately tampered with the defendants’ court files and related evidence. Facing such untenable misconduct, during this time Long filed an official complaint but it was not accepted by the Ministry of Public Security as required by the Vietnamese criminal procedural law.
Originally, Thuc, Dinh, Long and Trung were accused of “circulating propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam” under article 88 of the Criminal Code. Later, the allegations were changed according to article 79, which states “activities aimed at subverting the people’s administration.” Particularly, Thuc was accused of attending the 2009 training session in Thailand with Dinh, founding an online study group called the Chan Research Group and blogs entitled “Change We Need” aimed at discussing issues such as political pluralism, democratic reforms or criticizing Government plans to mine bauxite in the Central highlands.
Either charge had no credible grounding as there existed no possible link between the facts described and the legal terms invoked by prosecutors. Both the indictment and conviction not only gave partially or completely inaccurate descriptions of the defendants’ activities but they also failed to connect any conduct by the defendants to any viable legal theory of criminal liability.
4. Defense Denied Meaningful Due Process
In the face of official misconduct and due process violations, as the trial unfolded, Thuc presented a highly substantiated motion for the recusal of a Vietnam Communist Party-controlled bench of judge, but to no avail. Attendance by observers unrelated to the defendants inside the courtroom were for the most part cosmetic efforts by the authorities to portray the trial as legitimate. The day before the first trial, Thuc was notified that he was not allowed to bring the prosecutorial indictment into the courtroom; as a consequence, he had to resort to memorizing this document during the night. On theory, the defense was permitted to speak in court, but at crucial moments of the trial, the defendants’ microphones did not function, making them unable to properly defend themselves. Even though the defendants were allowed to file motions and objections, the vast majority of these motions and objections were routinely denied or ignored.
The “case‐closed” mentality of the Vietnamese state-owned media leading to the trial ultimately reigned in the courtroom, given the judge’s biased handling of the multitude of due process violations that marked the proceedings. Irrespective of the efforts of the defense, the proceedings continued to be undermined by unfair and unlawful decisions and maneuvers that irreparably frustrated Thuc’s and his co-defendants’ rights to a fair trial. A feeling of futility reigned in the courtroom as the judges took only 15 minutes to deliberate at the abrupt closure of the trial, leaving the defense unable to properly cross-examine witnesses and analyse evidence presented against them, and thereafter read the judgment for 45 minutes – the illlogicality between the two periods indicated that the judgement had been prepared in advance of the actual hearing.
5. Verdict and Sentence
The judges of the People’s Court of First Instance of Ho Chi Minh City on January 20th 2010 found all four defendants guilty of charge. While Dinh, Long and Trung were sentenced to periods of imprisonment ranging from 5 to 7 years, Thuc was sentenced to 16 years in prison – a verdict without precedent in the Vietnamese history of political cases. Not only unprecedented because of the severe punishment, the verdict also marked the first time the Vietnamese government indicted its citizens with “overthrowing the people’s administration” by “peaceful evolution” approach. The case of Tran Huynh Duy Thuc and his friends were peculiar to most democratic societies, whereas Vietnamese people were confused whether their government had intentionally encouraged war or violence.
6. The appeal
All the defendants, except for Trung, appealed against their sentences. On May 11th 2010, the appeals section of the Supreme People’s Court reduced Mr. Long’s sentence to three and a half years of imprisonment. The sentences of Dinh and Thuc were confirmed. The appeal was also closed to the public, and independent observers were not allowed to enter the court to monitor the proceedings. During this appeal, Thuc complained that he was ill-treated during the investigation process and was forced to sign a confession which was broadcast on national television in August 2010. Regardless of his motion, the appeals court upheld Thuc’s 16-year sentence due to the fact that he had refused to plead guilty during the trial.
7. Current Status of Detention
Tran Huynh Duy Thuc is currently being detained at K1, Z30A, Xuan Loc Prison Camp in Dong Nai province, Viet Nam.
Since August 2012, Thuc has been held in solitary confinement. He is not allowed to leave the cell and his only contact with other human beings is when the prison guards deliver his meals. He is also not allowed to receive books, newspapers, pens or paper like other inmates.
II. WHY THE FACTS AND THE LAWS SHOULD HAVE EXONERATED THE DEFENDANTS
Tran Huynh Duy Thuc and his friends were simply engaged in non-violent activities by peacefully expressing their ideas regarding the need for political, economic and social reforms, and the respect of human rights in Vietnam. The defendants did not use any form of violence for political ends, such as overthrowing the government, and there was no evidence of such violence. Moreover, their activities were appropriate exercise of the rights and freedoms under articles 19 and 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, articles 19, 21 and 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and article 69 of the Constitution of Vietnam.
On the other hand, the language of article 79 of the Vietnamese Criminal Code is vague and does not sufficiently draw a distinction between the use and non-use of violence.
As regards the case of Thuc and his friends, in a statement issued on November 23rd 2012, The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded, “the deprivation of liberty of Le Cong Dinh, Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, Nguyen Tien Trung, and Le Thang Long is arbitrary and in contravention of articles 9, 19 and 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Viet Nam is a party.”
Accordingly, the Working Group requested the Government of Viet Nam to unconditionally release the aforementioned individuals and to accord them compensation in order to bring Vietnam into conformity with the standards and principles set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.