HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Protesters and security forces gathered in the normally quiet Vietnamese capital on Wednesday for the trial of a U.S-trained lawyer known for taking on human rights cases and writing a blog critical of the government.
Le Quoc Quan was arrested last year and accused of tax evasion, a charge widely considered to be trumped up.
Quan’s case is being followed closely by U.S. government, which is pressing Vietnam’s Communist leaders to loosen their restrictions on those advocating democracy and greater respect for human rights.
The trial was due to start Wednesday morning, though it was not clear if it had due to restrictions on communicating from the courtroom. Trials in Vietnam often last just a day, and do not meet international standards for fairness, according to human rights groups.
Many hundreds of police and other security officers were stationed in the streets around the court preventing people from getting close. Around 100 of Quan’s supporters rallied at a church elsewhere in the city, shouting “Justice for innocent people.”
Quan is a Roman Catholic and the protesters included at least one member of the clergy, as well as elderly men and women.
Quan, in his early 40s, was detained in 2007 for three months on his return from a U.S. government-funded fellowship in Washington. He is one of Vietnam’s better-known dissidents and maintains a popular blog that highlighted human rights abuses and other issues off-limits to the state media.
Vietnam converted to a market economy in the late 1980s and wants to integrate with the world, but maintains strict controls on freedom of speech and political expression. Bloggers, activists and others are routinely arrested and imprisoned. Foreign media representatives are allowed to live in Vietnam but are subject to restrictions on where they can travel and what they can report.
The Internet has emerged as a vital organizing tool for dissidents in recent years, and there has been a surge of blogs and Facebook pages highlighting criticism of the government. The rise of the Internet, combined with an economic slowdown, has left the ruling elite feeling vulnerable.