A court in Vietnam on Tuesday rejected an appeal by jailed prominent government critic Le Quoc Quan against his conviction on tax evasion charges, upholding a 30-month prison sentence despite claims that the case was politically motivated.
Hundreds of his supporters demonstrated outside the Hanoi People’s Court of Appeals, in a rare mass protest in Vietnam where the authoritarian Communist government keeps a tight lid on dissent.
Quan’s family decried the half-day hearing as “unfair” after the Catholic lawyer and blogger, who has been on a hunger strike for more than two weeks, appeared to faint from exhaustion during the proceedings.
The court said it found no evidence to overturn the conviction handed in October to Quan, who has defended victims of religious persecution and written critically of Vietnam’s one-party Communist government online.
“The sentence was upheld,” including a fine against Quan’s company of about U.S. $60,000, his lawyer Ha Huy Son told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
Son had argued that the case should not have been taken to a criminal court but should have been resolved through administrative procedures.
Quan told the court he was a “victim of a political conspiracy” and that he objected to the trial, Agence France-Presse reported.
Court president Nguyen Van Son said Quan “took a disrespectful attitude” toward the court and did not show regret, according to the news agency.
Quan’s supporters were barred by police from reaching the court.
“Police are everywhere and we can’t go anywhere,” Quan’s brother Le Quoc Quyet, who was among the crowd of supporters, told RFA.
The protesters clashed with police after hearing Quan had fainted during the trial.
“His supporters tried to get in [to the court] after hearing the news, asking for the trial to be postponed. Police attacked them, causing some to fall down,” Quyet said.
Quan’s mother Nguyen Thi Tram said her son, weak after his hunger strike, nearly fainted when the court asked him to stand.
He began his hunger strike earlier this month after being refused a meeting with a priest and access to a Bible and law books.
“Quan was on hunger strike for 16 days so he is very ill, and he did not have enough water to drink,” Tram told RFA.
“He was tired and asked for the trial to be postponed, but they did not grant it and forced him to stand. He [nearly] fainted,” she said.
“This trial is not fair,” she said.
Supporters outside the court included Catholics from Quan’s hometown in Nghe An province and from the Thai Ha Church in Hanoi.
Others from Nghe An were barred from traveling to Hanoi for the trial, according to Quyet.
International rights groups have said the tax evasion charges are part of a government campaign to silence Quan, who at his trial last year said the case was part of a political vendetta against him and vowed to continue his fight against corruption.
Quan's case drew condemnation Tuesday from the U.S. State Department, which said it was "deeply concerned" by the Vietnamese government's decision to uphold his conviction.
"The use of tax laws by Vietnamese authorities to imprison government critics for peacefully expressing their political views is disturbing," State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said.
"This conviction appears to be inconsistent with the right to freedom of expression and Vietnam’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and commitments reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."
Paris-based press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders said it was "outraged" by Tuesday's ruling.
“This sentence is designed to reinforce self-censorship and to deter all of Quan’s supporters and independent information providers from continuing their fight,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, head of the group's Asia-Pacific desk.
“We condemn the way the hearing was conducted. Hundreds of people who had come to support Quan were kept away from the courthouse and only his mother and wife were allowed to attend."
U.S.-based global advocacy group Human Rights Watch had earlier called on Vietnam to unconditionally release Quan and allow him to resume his work as a rights defender.
It would be a “welcome step to show the government is sincere about ending the persecution of critics,” the group’s Asia director, Brad Adams, said.
Quan was previously jailed for three months in 2007 for participating in "activities aimed at overthrowing the people's government," but was released following protests from the United States.
In addition to writing his blogs, Quan was heavily involved in a string of anti-China demonstrations in 2012 over Beijing's territorial claims in the South China Sea.