Conflict & Justice

Famous Vietnam Dissident Jailed for Promoting Political Reform

By David Maxon

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Rush hour in Hanoi is always chaotic, but on this day, it was pandemonium. Police barricades closed off three square blocks in the middle of downtown surrounding Vietnam's Supreme Court. Outside a barricade, a woman stood on the sidewalk holding a modest sign with a simple message.

"My brother is innocent," said Cu Thi Xuan Bich. Her brother is Cu Huy Ha Vu, a 53-year old lawyer, scholar, and on this day, defendant. He's appealing a sentence for "conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam." What Vu was doing was promoting political reforms, including the introduction of a multiparty system.

"My brother spoke frankly and directly in petitions to government leaders," Bich said. "But they didn't accept it and claimed that he committed a political crime."

In addition to his political writings Vu has a history of defending the rights of the country's Catholic minority. He also angered some powerful people when he filed a lawsuit against the prime minister to halt the development of some Chinese-owned mines. But Vu is not just any political dissident. He's the son of one of Vietnam's founding fathers, the poet Cu Huy Can, who, along with Ho Chi Minh, signed the declaration giving birth to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

Vu's late father was part of Ho Chi Minh's provisional cabinet in the early days of Vietnamese self-governance. His uncle was the famous poet Xuan Dieu, for whom streets all over Vietnam are named. Imagine the son of Ben Franklin being tried for treason and you'll get a sense of Vu's place in modern Vietnamese history.

His sister Bich insists he didn't commit a crime.

"My brother dedicated his knowledge for developing Vietnam. He did everything according to the law. Everything he did was very transparent and public."

But the government did not agree. Vu was sentenced to seven years in prison. The punishment sparked protests and an outpouring of support in a country where organized protests are illegal.

Bich spoke in a careful, diplomatic way, but an elderly man in the crowd was blunter about the anger there. He said Vu is struggling for the cause of the people, and that Vietnam has no freedom. "All the people want democracy and freedom," he said.

Bich said her brother hopes to give voice to those people. "My brother dedicated his life to developing this country. He wants to use his knowledge to develop a free country."

By this point, the police have took notice. A crowd had gathered, and a dozen video cameras were filming. Bich decided to cut the interview off.

The fact that this scene unfolded and that Bich was not stopped from holding her sign may signal how far this fast-changing society has come in recent years.

But in the end, Vu's seven-year prison sentence was upheld. Some of his supporters have reportedly been jailed and beaten and had their phones monitored.

If I need a reminder of the challenges facing reformers in this country, I didn't have to wait long. The next morning I got a visit from the authorities, and a phone call reminding me to "stay out of trouble."