The decision to keeps Le Quoc Quan behind bars, where he has been on a hunger strike since February 2, comes amid calls for his release from various quarters, including U.S. lawmakers, a broad coalition of human rights and press freedom groups, and several thousand Vietnamese who held candlelit prayer vigils in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City on Monday.
Supporters also demonstrated outside the Hanoi court during his appeal hearing, where according to state media a panel of judges upheld the sentence of 30 months’ imprisonment, as well as a fine of more than $60,000 imposed against the convicted man’s company.
The State Department expressed concern at the appeal outcome.
“The use of tax laws by Vietnamese authorities to imprison government critics for peacefully expressing their political views is disturbing,” said spokeswoman Jen Psaki. “We call on the government to release prisoners of conscience and allow all Vietnamese to peacefully express their political views.”
Le Quoc Quan was arrested in December 2012, and in a swift trial 10 months later was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced. He began a hunger strike early this month after prison authorities denied him access to a Bible and law books to help him prepare for his upcoming appeal, and visits by a priest.
Supporters say Le Quoc Quan has been targeted by the authorities repeatedly since 2007, when he was first arrested four days after returning from a five-month National Endowment for Democracy fellowship in the U.S., and accused of subversion.
On that occasion he was released three months later after protests from the U.S., but according to Human Rights Watch he subsequently faced police surveillance, disbarring, the shutting of his legal firm, and a severe assault in August 2012.
His arrest four months later came just after he posted an article online, critical of a clause in Vietnam’s constitution stating that “The Communist Party of Vietnam, the vanguard of the Vietnamese working class, the faithful representative of the rights and interests of the working class, the toiling people, and the whole nation, acting upon the Marxist-Leninist doctrine and Ho Chi Minh’s thought, is the force leading the State and society.”
The press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders slammed the appeal denial, called again for Le Quoc Quan’s release, and said that it plans to translate and circulate his articles “so that more people can read his criticism of Vietnam’s human rights violations – criticism that the authorities did not want to hear.”
Reporters Without Borders says Vietnam has the second largest number of people detained for online activism, after China.
Human Rights Watch reports that at least 63 people were imprisoned for peaceful political expression in Vietnam during 2013.
The European Union delegation in Hanoi said it was particularly disappointed at the court decision in the light of Vietnam’s recent election onto the U.N. Human Rights Council. (Vietnam was voted onto the Geneva-based council for a three-year term last November; 184 members of the 193-member U.N. General Assembly supported its bid.)
During a visit to Hanoi in December, Secretary of State John Kerry urged the authorities to protect rights, although he did not call publicly for the release of political prisoners or name any individual cases.
A senior official traveling with him told reporters that face-to-face meetings with senior officials during his stay would give Kerry the opportunity “to be direct in private.”
Ahead of that visit, Kerry’s first to Vietnam as secretary of state, a bipartisan group of 47 members of Congress had urged him to “put human rights first” and to link the issue to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an Obama administration priority trade agreement that includes Vietnam among its 12 negotiating partners.
Despite its form of government and poor human rights record Vietnam has benefitted significantly from an improvement in diplomatic and economic ties with the United States over the years since President Clinton in 2000 became the first U.S. president to visit since the Vietnam War.
The U.S. in 2006 granted Vietnam permanent normal trade relations, and removed Hanoi from a list of “countries of particular concern” for egregious freedom of religion abuses. The State Department said the religious freedom situation had improved, although the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to this day recommends Vietnam’s relisting.
During his Senate career Kerry and fellow Vietnam War veteran Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) were strong advocates for normalization of relations between the former enemies.
As chairman of a Senate Foreign Affairs subcommittee, Kerry in 2001 blocked progress of legislation that had passed in the House by a 410-1 vote, seeking to link U.S. aid to Vietnam’s human rights conduct. “Denying aid to Vietnam would actually slow human rights improvements,” he said at the time.