Vietnam arrests a pragmatist
By Roby Alampay
BANGKOK - On the surface, there is nothing new about Vietnam's arrest on June
13 of a prominent lawyer for the usual charges of spreading anti-state
propaganda. Le Cong Dinh is American-educated - he obtained has a master's
degree in law from Tulane University - and well-networked with international
lawyers and human rights and pro-democracy advocates.
The easiest insight into his arrest is the plain observation that Vietnam has
gone and done it again. They've arrested a Western-influenced change-monger,
adding to some 30 deemed dissidents, including artists, religious activists,
writers, that Amnesty International says have received long prison sentences
The national and international concern over Dinh's arrest, however, is quite on
another level. The attack on a man so vocal is nothing
new. The charges against Le Cong Dinh are troubling for a reason peculiar to
his standing in Vietnamese society, which is this: he is not a dissident.
Still only 41 and already successful, with a thriving law practice and married
to a beauty queen, Dinh may well be considered part of the ruling
establishment. What has set him apart is not so much his open advocacy for
reform, but his faith in his chosen platform. It is the same platform that
makes the charges against him preposterous.
For as much as Dinh has advocated for democracy, and the rights of Vietnamese,
he has stayed well within his prescribed boundaries as a lawyer in Vietnam.
When he defends bloggers, writers and human-rights activists he does not write
from outside Vietnam or organize campaigns from within the country.
He is known for speaking plainly as a lawyer, arguing purely from what is
within the Vietnam constitution. His advocacy, if anything, is for the rule of
law. He points out that free expression is stated and ostensibly valued in the
constitution, along with press freedom and freedom of assembly.
Where dissidents carp that the legal guarantees for free expression are nominal
at best, the lawyer in Dinh is known to have worked with the implicit message,
"Fair enough, but let's see how far we can take this." He has defended clients
on the same premise by which journalists and bloggers in Vietnam say that
change can, will, and in fact already does, manifest on the Internet.
Tide of openness
Despite restrictions, filtering and the blocking of websites, the growing
openness of the Internet is palpable in Vietnam. Through blogs and other online
platforms, Vietnamese are more vocal about topics such as corruption, economic
reform and religion. Clearly there are still boundaries, but it is precisely
for those who find themselves having crossed the line (wittingly or otherwise)
that Dinh became known as a collected and confident representative.
What bloggers and writers want to believe about the Internet, Dinh has
seemingly tried to prove within the legal sector. Given the ruling Communist
Party's institutionalized suppression, Dinh's commitment to work from within
the system is invaluable and is not easy to come by.
United States-based rights advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW) notes that
"most political and religious prisoners in Vietnam do not have access to
independent legal counsel during their trials". Meanwhile, "Other lawyers
seeking to defend Vietnamese human-rights defenders and religious freedom
activists have faced threats and harassment."
HRW cites the case of "Bui Kim Thanh, who was involuntarily committed to a
mental institution in 2008 and 2006 because of her defense of farmers seeking
redress for confiscation of their land".
On this level, Dinh is neither the first nor the only person facing harassment.
In 2007, his clients were two fellow lawyers for whom he successfully pleaded
shorter sentences after they had also been effectively penalized for
"propagandizing against the state".
That he had managed to at least shorten the prison terms for his colleagues was
the kind of moral victory that sustained Dinh. But it is his own pending trial
- the arrest of the most famous pragmatist in Vietnam - that underscores what
is finally at stake. The government says Dinh "took advantage of his work as a
defense lawyer for a number of reactionaries ... to propagandize against the
regime and distort Vietnam's constitution and laws".
The Southeast Asia Media Legal Defense Network, a network of independent media
defenders from around the region, says Vietnam is effectively criminalizing the
lawyer's professional obligation to defend his clients. By penalizing his
arguments for free expression, including those uttered within the boundaries of
the court and in the course of litigation, they are harassing the whole legal
sector and leaving the nation defenseless.
It is not just the Vietnamese who should be worried. Vietnam takes over the
chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2010, just as the
body is scheduled to finally table terms of reference for the formation of a
still nebulous human-rights body. Because nobody can yet say whether that
"body" will ultimately be a council, a committee, a court, or a desk in some
cubicle, its direction and momentum are highly dependent on political will.
The Vietnamese government's treatment of Dinh augurs ill for the viability of
the human-rights body. Some say the motives for Dinh's arrest may not
necessarily signal a wider state-sanctioned clampdown, though the arrest this
week of three pro-democracy activists accused of colluding with Dinh raises red
There is speculation that the charges against Dinh are politically motivated.
For all he has espoused - farmers' rights, a challenge to mining operations,
Vietnam's claims over disputed islands with China, among others - he is known
to have enemies in many arenas. All the same, it all still redounds to a
compromised legal system further exploited at the expense of Vietnam's - and
the region's - already tarnished free speech and human-rights records.
Whatever the case, Vietnamese will lose one man who was stubborn enough to push
for change within the system. Now that it is he who needs a lawyer, the
prospects for all he has stood and fought for in Vietnam have become all the
Roby Alampay is executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance.