.- After “highly spirited” protests and reports of Vietnamese authorities’ interference with their legal representation, a Hanoi appellate court on Friday rejected the appeal of eight Catholic parishioners convicted of disturbing public order and damaging property during demonstrations seeking the return of confiscated church land.
The charges against the defendants stemmed from protests at Thai Ha Church, where they joined hundreds of Catholic protesters seeking the return of 14 acres of church land confiscated by the Vietnamese government.
In December 2008 seven of the eight Catholics, who at the time ranged in age from 21 to 63, were convicted of damaging public property during the protests, while Marie Nguyen Thi Nhi was charged with causing a social disturbance for playing a gong and praying at Thai Ha. The property that was allegedly damaged by the Catholics reportedly amounted to around $200 in value.
Seven parishioners were given administrative probation of up to two years and suspended jail terms of 12 to 15 months, minus time already spent in custody. An eighth was given a warning.
They appealed their convictions, arguing that they committed no crime and were exercising their right to free speech.
On Friday appellate court president Nguyen Quoc Hoi ruled that there was no ground for their appeal. Fr. J.B. An Dang told CNA the court president charged that the defendants' behavior was “dangerous for society, causing serious consequences... undermining the great national unity.”
The Catholic defendants’ principal lawyer Le Tran Luat was absent, reportedly because of government interference.
“The time period leading up to the trial has been marked by a crescendo of harassment and intimidation by Vietnamese authorities against Le Tran Luat,” Fr. An Dang told CNA, explaining that the actions included “detention, searches, interrogation, phone threats, banning him from travelling to Hanoi, as well as taking away from him his license to practice. Besides all this, the state media is carrying out a smear campaign against him as a person and a servant of the public.”
He reported that state-run media outlets have carried articles accusing the lawyer of using false documents, employing non-attorneys to work as lawyers and also failing to pay taxes.
“The Catholic defendants have obviously been deprived of their right to legal representation in accordance with due process,” Fr. An Dang charged, adding that two other lawyers defended seven of the defendants, while Nguyen Thi Nhi had to defend herself because Le Tran Luat was her only advocate.
At 6 a.m. following a morning Mass on the day of the trial, thousands of Thai Ha parishioners had marched about 7.5 miles from their church to the court house, singing and praying loudly.
They were joined by thousands of parishioners at Ha Dong in their demonstration before hundreds of anti-riot police equipped with batons, stun guns, and trained dogs.
The protesters held placards criticizing the trial. Some signs read “Justice, truth” and others read “You are innocent.”
Armed police reportedly raided homes in Ha Dong neighborhoods the day before the trial. Some people were held in custody while others were expelled from the area.
“Residents were warned not to allow anyone who had not registered with police to stay during the night at their homes or face severe punishment for their ‘not cooperating’," Fr. An Dang told CNA.
The night before the trial, Vietnamese television station VTV1 accused the Redemptorist order of instigating the eight parishioners to commit disorderly conduct. The station questioned why the priests had not yet been arrested.
Other state media outlets have made similar reports in what Fr. An Dang characterized as “a concerted effort to limit the number of Catholics whose attendance is foreseeable.”
Catholics have complained that the 2008 trial was itself an attempt by the government to prevent protests concerning officials’ property disputes with the Catholic Church.