By Cat Barton, AFP
HANOI–Vietnam imprisoned a leading critic of the communist regime for tax evasion Wednesday — a move described by the United States as “disturbing” — as hundreds of supporters protested in the capital. Scores of police formed a ring around the Hanoi court where lawyer and blogger Le Quoc Quan was jailed for two and a half years on charges denounced by rights campaigners as politically motivated. “I am the victim of political acts,” Le Quoc Quan told the court, flatly denying the accusations and saying he had not been allowed to see the evidence against him. “I will continue my fight against corruption, attacking bureaucracy and stagnancy that are undermining our country,” he added. The 42-year-old, who appeared in the dock looking tense and unhappy, was also given a US$59,000 fine after a half-day trial. The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi said it was “deeply concerned” by the verdict.
“The use of tax laws by Vietnamese authorities to imprison government critics for peacefully expressing their political views is disturbing,” it said in a statement, calling for the release of all prisoners of conscience. When the ruling was announced, Le Quoc Quan shouted “I object” before the television feed into the observation room where an AFP correspondent was sitting was cut off. His company’s chief accountant, Pham Thi Phuong, 31, was given eight months in jail. Le Quoc Quan, who blogged on a range of sensitive topics including civil rights, political pluralism and religious freedom, has been in detention since last December. His lawyer Ha Huy Son told the court that there were “no grounds to prosecute” the popular blogger over tax evasion, and said police had ordered tax authorities to cook up the charges. Rights groups estimate hundreds of activists are locked up in Vietnam for speaking out against authoritarian communist rule, including at least 46 jailed this year. Shouting “Free Le Quoc Quan” and waving signs calling for the Catholic lawyer’s release, several hundred people blocked a key intersection in the capital as his trial 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. Le Quoc Quyet, the lawyer’s younger brother, said he and his sister were prevented from marching to court to attend the trial. “We request to watch the trial but police stop us,” he said. There was “some violence, the police hit, they kick some people”, he added.