Lawyers representing Vietnamese land-rights activists appealing sentences for their roles in a deadly clash with police last year at the Dong Tam commune were repeatedly obstructed in court in Hanoi on Monday, the first day of their hearing, sources told RFA.
Violations of due process by three-judge panel hearing the case included barring one lawyer from conferring with his client and stopping lines of questioning into sensitive aspects of the case, lawyers told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
One attorney in the case, Ngo Anh Tuan, was prevented from transferring his trial notes from one computer to another so that he could post an account of the day’s proceedings on his Facebook page, he said.
“I typed up my notes in a transparent manner,” Ngo said. “However, when I was getting the notes from the USB in order to put post something on Facebook at noon, they wouldn’t allow me to do so,” he said.
“We changed our strategy this afternoon, and are now writing our trial notes on paper. We used many tens of pages of paper to do this,” he said.
Lawyer Dang Dinh Manh was also refused permission by trial judges to meet with one of his clients in violation of Article 256 of Vietnam’s Criminal Code, Ngo said.
“The judges said that the lawyers had already had a lot of time to speak with their clients before the trial, so the panel and the presiding judge brusquely refused Dan Dinh Manh’s request to meet with his client during the trial,” he said.
Six defendants have now filed appeals of their sentences in the Dong Tam case, in which village elder Le Dinh Kinh, 84, was killed on Jan. 9, 2020 in an early-morning raid on the village by 3,000 security officers intervening in a long-running dispute over a military construction site about 25 miles south of the capital, Hanoi.
Le’s sons, Le Dinh Chuc and Le Dinh Cong, were both sentenced to death on Sept. 14 for murder in connection with the deaths of three police officers who were killed in the clash when they were attacked with petrol bombs and fell into a concrete shaft while running between two houses.
They were among a group of 29 villagers tried for their roles in the incident. Other punishments handed out by the court included a life sentence and other sentences ranging from six years to 15 months of probation.
Le Dinh Cong, one of the two defendants sentenced to death at trial last year, has now changed his appeal from asking for a reduction in his sentence to asserting his complete innocence in the case, saying he had thrown petrol bombs only to frighten police and not to kill them, state media said.
Family members kept away
Family members hoping to attend Monday’s trial were meanwhile kept away from the court building by police who corraled them into a street corner to wait for news of the day’s proceedings, relatives said.
“Things here have been very tense,” said Nguyen Thi Duyen, the wife of Le Dinh Uy, who did not appeal his six-year prison term, and niece of slain village elder Le Dinh Kinh.
“They would not let us in, even when the lawyers tried to intervene for us,” she said.
“Just as in the first trial [in September 2020], they have cornered everyone and isolated them. They haven’t threatened us, but they have blocked our movements. I brought some food with me and ate it right here,” she added.
In a statement Monday, Human Rights Watch Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson voiced serious concerns over the prospects of a fair trial for the six Dong Tam villagers appealing their sentences.
“Vietnam’s courts are far from independent, and predetermined outcomes dictated by the ruling communist party are still trademarks of the country’s so-called ‘justice system,’” Robertson said.
“There are still many unanswered questions about what happened during the Dong Tam raid that authorities have never been willing to clarify.”
“We are also deeply troubled by the information brought out in the defense lawyers’ report, stating that police used torture on some defendants to force them to confess, raising fundamental concerns about the fairness of the entire trial,” Robertson said.
While all land in Vietnam is ultimately held by the state, land confiscations have become a flashpoint as residents accuse the government of pushing small landholders aside in favor of lucrative real estate projects, and of paying too little in compensation to farming families displaced by development.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Chau Vu. Written in English by Richard Finney.