The organisation Human Rights Watch says the Vietnamese government often uses article 88 of the penal code to arbitrarily imprison critics of the state.
At least 12 Catholic activists and bloggers are currently in detention, pending investigation or awaiting trial.
Phil Robertson is deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.
Presenter: Sen Lam
Speaker: Phil Robertson, deputy director, Asia division, Human Rights Watch
ROBERTSON: It's being used continuously against government critics in Vietnam. The actual article "conducting propaganda against the socialist republic of Vietnam" is so general and vague, that almost anybody can be caught in the net. It's being used against bloggers, social critics, community activists like these four Catholic youth, who are going to be tried. Across the board, Article 88 is something that if the government of Vietnam doesn't like what you're saying, they can use this against you.
LAM: Well these four Catholic activists were arrested for allegedly distributing pro-democracy leaflets. Do we know exactly what was in the leaflets?
ROBERTSON: No, we don't. The government has not released those leaflets. In fact, that is one of the mysteries, exactly what they were saying that set the government off? They have been active on various different charitable projects and also encouraging policies in line with the Catholic Church's teachings but we don't know exactly what they were saying in those pro-democracy leaflets. We just know that the government has maintained that they were promoting some sort of democratic cause.
LAM: The Catholic Church has a record of social activism, in the world, but what are these particular activists doing in Vietnam that you think might've alarmed the Vietnamese authorities so?
ROBERTSON: It's hard to say. We think that perhaps they have been working with some of the parishes that the government has been watching closely. The only thing that we can see that perhaps may have set them (the government) off, was that these activists were encouraging women to not have abortions, which of course is in line with Catholic dogma, and may have run afoul against the government's family planning policy, but beyond that, we have not been able to discern exactly, what set the government off and what made them move against these four.
LAM: Vietnamese authorities have been accused in the past, of intolerance towards ethnic minorities, but what do we know about the state's relationship with the Catholic Church in Vietnam?
ROBERTSON: Well, it's been strained for quite some time. In fact, there was a recent delegation from the Vatican, which had visas denied. There have been very, very serious problems between the Vietnamese state and a number of congregations, the Redemptoralists, being the most prominent connected to, not only their teachings but also government seizure of Church properties and unwillingness to return to those to the Church.
LAM: And so, has there been any kind of response from the Catholic Church, towards the arrest of these four activists?
ROBERTSON: The Catholic Church is stating very clearly that these four activists should be released. They have, through their parishes in Vietnam, organised prayer vigils for these four individuals, so there's clearly a network of solidarity supporting these four and their families.
LAM: And so, there are, I understand, about a dozen activists and bloggers currently under detention, awaiting trial?
ROBERTSON: Yes, well, unfortunately, we're find out about more every day. The groups that we're expecting to see next include some of the most prominent bloggers in Vietnam, including Dieu Cay and Ta Phong Tan - these are very very prominent bloggers, who were almost pioneer citizen blogging in Vietnam, as members of the Club for Free Journalists. And that trial which was supposed to take place last month, but was delayed indefinitely, could come any day now.
LAM: From past experience, what kind of sentencing might we expect for these activists, if they're found guilty?
ROBERTSON: That's a good question. It would depend a little bit on how these activists have interacted with the authorities during their pre-trial detention. Often we find in pre-detention in Vietnam that the authorities do employ torture. If these individuals admitted remorse, they may get lighter sentences. However, if they have resisted, they may get heavier sentences. I would expect that we may see sentences anywhere in the three to eight year range, but it's very, very opaque. The sentencing processes in Vietnam courts are determined largely by the local officials and the party. Again, there're so many variables that it's hard to say exactly what would happen, but we do expect that they will be sentenced to prison. And in our view, they shouldn't even be in court. They should be immediately released and Vietnam should start respecting freedom of expression, in line with their international human rights obligations.