By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 28, 2010; 10:36 PM
HANOI - In the run-up to a visit by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Vietnam this week arrested two bloggers, refused to release another blogger after he completed a prison sentence and convicted three labor activists and six Catholic villagers in human rights-related cases.
The actions, which prompted a statement of concern from the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi on Thursday, threaten the significant progress that has been made between the United States and Vietnam in recent months.
Pushed together by a shared concern over the rise of China, officials from both countries boast that the relationship is better than ever. Including her two-day visit starting Friday, Clinton will have been to Vietnam twice in the past four months. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates was here for talks two weeks ago, and defense officials from Washington and Hanoi held their first-ever security dialogue in August.
Analysts are split about the meaning of this week's arrests and court cases. Some, mostly Western diplomats, say they are part of a year-long crackdown on dissent as Vietnam's Communist Party prepares for its first party congress in five years in January. Since last October, 21 people have been jailed for crimes involving a peaceful expression of their views.
Other analysts, mostly Vietnamese, see the activity this week as part of a pattern related to an internal struggle in the Vietnamese Communist Party over its relations with the United States. Vietnam has moved closer to the United States as a hedge against aggressive behavior by China. But that shift is controversial inside a party that remains deeply influenced by China and fears that the United States is committed to overthrowing the Vietnamese political system.
So as important meetings with U.S. officials approach, Vietnamese security services often crack down on dissent, wrong-footing generally pro-American politicians. In 2007, a month before the first state visit to the United States by Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet, Vietnamese judicial authorities opened court proceedings in the central city of Hue to foreign journalists - an unprecedented step - in the one-day trial of the Rev. Nguyen Van Ly. The Catholic priest was sentenced to eight years on charges of disseminating information intended to undermine the state, and the trial generated a famous photograph of Ly being muzzled by a security official after he shouted, "Down with the Communist Party."
In May 2008, a month before Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung visited the United States, Vietnamese authorities arrested two investigative journalists who had reported on one of the country's biggest corruption cases. An official who accompanied Dung on his U.S. trip said the prime minister was uncomfortable about the arrests.
In the cases this week, a court in southern Vietnam on Tuesday sentenced three labor activists to up to nine years in prison for instigating strikes and distributing anti-government leaflets. Nguyen Hoang Quoc Hung, 29, was convicted of disrupting security and given a nine-year sentence. Two others, Doan Huy Chuong and Do Thi Minh Hanh, both 25, will serve seven years. The three were accused of organizing a strike at a shoe factory in Tra Vinh province last year and of sending photographs of the strikes to be posted online.
In another case, six Catholic villagers were convicted after a one-day trial in the central city of Danang after a land dispute over a cemetery between residents and security officials. Several U.S. congressmen alleged that police had beaten the accused. Four of them received nine-month suspended jail terms, but two others were sent to jail for terms of nine months and one year respectively.
In the blogging cases, a well-known gossip columnist, Le Nguyen Huong Tra, was arrested Tuesday in Ho Chi Minh City on charges of defamation after she posted an item alleging that the son of a senior security official had had affairs with beauty queens and dancers.
Also in Ho Chi Minh City, police kept up pressure on two other bloggers known for posts calling on Vietnam to confront China. Phan Thanh Hai was taken into custody Monday, and police continued to detain Nguyen Van Hai, who writes under the name Dieu Cay. Dieu Cay was supposed to be released from jail Oct. 20 after completing a 21/2-year sentence. He had been arrested on tax evasion charges after posting a series of blogs calling for anti-China demonstrations before the Beijing Summer Olympics.
About 50 people are estimated to be in jail in Vietnam for politically related crimes. Although the country's human rights policies are often a target of criticism in the United States - Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) called on Clinton this week to raise the issue during her trip - Hanoi boasts a significantly more rambunctious political system than Burma, North Korea or even China. The National Assembly engages in real debates over policies, and the media are arguably less censored.
Some U.S. experts worry that if the Obama administration presses Vietnam too much on human rights, it could derail the hard-won progress in the relationship.
For many people in non-government organizations and the human rights community, "Vietnam is a kickable China," said Brantly Womack, professor of politics at the University of Virginia. "It's an easy target."