Cablegate: Vietnamese Journalists Who Exposed Corruption Found Guilty

Published: Thu 16 Oct 2008 10:11 AM
DE RUEHHI #1185/01 2901011
R 161011Z OCT 08
E.O. 12958: N/A
Ref: A) HANOI 1166; B) HANOI 569; C) HCMC 1136; D) HANOI 672; E)
HANOI 00001185 001.2 OF 002
1. (SBU) Summary: After a day and a half of testimony, the Hanoi
People's Court on October 15 found two reporters who exposed a major
corruption scandal guilty of "abusing democratic freedoms." The
court sentenced Thanh Nien newspaper's Nguyen Viet Chien to two
years in prison and sentenced Tuoi Tre newspaper's Nguyen Van Hai to
a two-year non-custodial "re-education" sentence. Ministry of
Public Security (MPS) Lieutenant Colonel Dinh Van Huynh, who served
as a story source, was sentenced to one year in prison for
"deliberately revealing state secrets" while police Major General
Pham Xuan Quac received only a warning. The verdicts, entirely
expected, were quickly condemned by Reporters Without Borders as a
severe blow for press freedom in Vietnam. End Summary.
2. (SBU) Two years ago the two reporters helped expose how officials
inside the Transport Ministry's PMU-18 unit stole millions of
dollars worth of foreign development funds meant for bridges and
roads and gambled on English football matches. On May 12, they were
jailed and on October 15, after a day and a half of testimony, the
Hanoi People's Court sentenced Thanh Nien reporter Nguyen Viet Chien
to two years in prison for abusing "freedom and democratic rights
harming state interest, legal rights and the interests of
organizations and citizens" in connection to his stories on the
PMU-18 scandal. The Court also sentenced Ministry of Public
Security (MPS) Lieutenant Colonel Dinh Van Huynh, who was involved
in the corruption scandal investigation and served as a source for
the reporters, to one year in prison for "deliberately revealing
state secrets." Chien's and Huynh's prison terms include time
served behind bars since their arrests.
3. (U) European Union, Canadian and Australian diplomats and Poloff
attended the trials. Police officials did not allow diplomats into
the actual courtroom; they watched via video feed from an adjacent
room. Police cordoned off the area around the courthouse and
security in and around the area was heavy.
4. (U) Nine lawyers pleaded for the four defendants at the first
hearing on October 14 and the Court summoned ten witnesses. At the
beginning of the trials, the prosecutors spent over an hour reading
the full indictment aloud. The indictment said the news reports
were incorrect and biased and were an effort to hurt the reputations
of government officials, Vietnam and its leadership before the 10th
Party Congress in April, 2006.
5. (SBU) Thanh Nien's Chien gave a spirited defense of his
reporting, maintaining that he verified information he received from
a variety of sources with police investigators. He added that, as a
professional journalist, he "only published what I was told by
investigating authorities." He said Major General Pham Xuan Quac
(also on trial) confirmed that he had a list of over 40 senior
officials, some of whom sit on the Communist Party's powerful
Central Committee, who were involved in the corruption scandal.
Chien asserted that other journalists reported details of the
corruption scandal before he did. He pointed out that the
corruption case attracted a lot of public attention and that
newspapers were competing against one another in getting the story
out. He asked why, if his stories contained inaccurate information,
did not one Party official ask for a retraction. Chien pointed out
that he served his country for five years in the Army, covered
political and economic issues for over 25 years as a reporter and
won several prizes for his journalism skills.
6. (SBU) Chien's attorney, a well-known lawyer in Vietnam, took
issue with prosecution claims that Chien "violated the State's
interests" and asked for prosecutors to define those interests.
Chien's attorney also asked how exactly his client had taken
advantage of democratic freedoms. Prosecutors chose to ignore these
points, instead just re-reading parts of the long indictment.
7. (SBU) The Hanoi People's Court also sentenced Tuoi Tre's Nguyen
Van Hai to a two-year non-custodial "re-education" sentence and
allowed him to walk free. (Note: This "re-education" will entail
Hai's employer and local officials teaching him how to live as "a
better citizen." End Note). In reading the verdict, the presiding
judge cited Hai's "cooperation and remorse." During his testimony,
Hai admitted to some unintentional mistakes in his reporting. Hai
contritely pointed out that he asked Tuoi Tre's vice editor-in-chief
to devote a special issue of the newspaper to the mistakes made in
reporting on the corruption scandal. In an odd sequence, Hai's
lawyer launched into a defense of his client's innocence after Hai
admitted to some "professional accidents" and was told by other
lawyers to stop attacking the case against his client.
8. (SBU) The Court merely issued an official warning to MPS General
Pham Xuan Quac, who oversaw the corruption investigation and who
stood accused of leaking secrets to the media. He denied serving as
the source for reports on the corruption scandal, but admitted to
meeting journalists after the scandal broke. Quac said no
HANOI 00001185 002.2 OF 002
evidentiary documents were produced and all the Court had heard was
hearsay. He told the Court he asked Deputy Prime Minister Truong
Vinh Trong if Quac's MPS unit should investigate media claims that
"a large group of people" was involved in the corruption scandal.
This was only a proposal and it did not mean he thought the
information was correct or that he verified information for the
reporters, he asserted.
9. (U) When the Court announced the sentences, Thanh Nien's Chien
displayed little emotion. His relatives, however, were seen crying
outside the courtroom. Tuoi Tre's Hai burst into tears and hugged
his wife. The roughly 100 people standing across the street from
the Court awaiting news peacefully dispersed after the verdicts were
10. (U) Following the announcement of the verdict, Reporters Without
Borders issued a statement that Chien's sentence deals a "severe
blow to press freedom" and said: "The outcome of this trial is a
terrible step backwards for investigative journalism in Vietnam.
The fragile basis of a press capable of playing its role of
challenging established authority has been badly shaken." The
organization added: "We urge the Vietnamese authorities to quickly
grant Chien an early release and we call on the international
community, especially the European Union, to condition aid to
Vietnam more closely on respect for press freedom and the release of
imprisoned journalists."
Comment: A Pre-Determined Result
11. (SBU) In keeping with standard practice in Vietnam, defense
attorneys were not able to cross-examine witnesses and only learned
about the prosecution's evidence at the trials. Four years ago,
Hanoi changed the criminal procedural code to empower courts to
decide guilt or innocence on their own but in practice the courts
enjoy little independence. Particularly in this politically
sensitive case, it is highly likely that Party higher-ups likely
decided the four defendants' fate well in advance of the brief
trial. End Comment.
12. (U) This cable was coordinated with ConGen Ho Chi Minh City.
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