Vietnam finds activist guilty of anti-government charges

A court in central Vietnam sentenced an activist to 20 years in prison Thursday after finding him guilty of attempting to overthrow the Communist government, his lawyer said, in a case decried by international rights groups.

The court also sentenced Le Dinh Luong, 53, to five years of house arrest, said his lawyer Ha Huy Son. Son said Luong was convicted of encouraging others to join the Viet Tan group in exile in the United States. Vietnam brands the group a terrorist organization.

"I think the sentence against Mr. Luong is too harsh," Son said after the half-day trial in Nghe An province.

Despite sweeping economic reforms over the past 30 years that opened Vietnam to international trade and investment and made it one of the fasting growing economies in the world, Vietnam tolerates no challenge to its one-party rule. Luong's sentence was the toughest in years for national security crimes.

The online version of the Nghe An newspaper reported that Luong was a "particularly dangerous" member of Viet Tan and that he had called on people to boycott National Assembly elections in 2016.

Luong had also participated in and instigated others to join protests against environmental pollution by a steel complex owned by Taiwan's Formosa Plastic Group in several central provinces in 2016.

The pollution, released in one of Vietnam's worst environmental disasters, killed tons of fish along 200 kilometers (124 miles) of coastline in four central provinces and caused big losses for the region's fishing and tourism industries.

International human rights groups called for Luong's immediate release.

"Vietnam's systemic crackdown against critics and activists has not deterred brave activists like Le Dinh Luong from campaigning for human rights and democracy," Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement Thursday. "The government should understand that locking people up for simply exercising their rights isn't working, and more activists will continue to step forward to speak their mind and hold protests against government injustices."

Meanwhile Clare Algar, Amnesty International's director of global operations, said Luong was being targeted for simply "peacefully campaigning on behalf of fishermen affected by an environmental disaster."

"This is a patently unjust and politically motivated case that should be dropped and Le Dinh Luong must be released immediately and unconditionally," Algar said.

Amnesty International says 97 people are serving prison sentences in Vietnam for violating national security laws, while Human Rights Watch counts 119.