Cablegate: No Jail Time for Eight Thai Ha Protestors

DE RUEHHI #1338/01 3440923
P 090923Z DEC 08




E.O. 12958: N/A

REF: A) Hanoi 1165, B) Hanoi 1007, C) Hanoi 1205

HANOI 00001338 001.2 OF 002

1. (SBU) SUMMARY: After a day of testimony December 8, the Dong Da
People's Court in Hanoi convicted eight Thai Ha protestors for
destruction of public property and disturbing the public order.
Seven of the parishioners were given suspended sentences; one was
issued a warning. None will serve jail time. The defendants
remained defiant throughout the trial, arguing that they committed
no crime. An estimated 1,000 Catholic supporters waited outside the
courtroom amid tight security and greeted the ruling

2. (SBU) COMMENT: The "Thai Ha trial," as it became known, was a
high-profile event, and the light sentences were doubtless dictated
from above. While taking a tough line on the land disputes
themselves, the government appears eager to maintain -- even to
improve -- relations with the Catholic Church (ref. A). In their
protracted vigil, Thai Ha priests and parishioners disobeyed
repeated calls from the People's Committee of Hanoi and local
officials to disperse -- normally a serious offense. It is
significant that of the thousands that participated in the prayer
vigils at Thai Ha and Nha Chung earlier this year, only eight were
convicted of minor offenses and received no jail time. END SUMMARY

The Trial

3. (U) On December 8, eight members of the Thai Ha Parish were
tried at the Dong Da People's Court in connection with land-use
demonstrations that resumed in August (Ref. A). The eight, ranging
in age from 21 to 63, faced two sets of charges. The first,
destruction of public property, focused on the defendants' roles in
tearing down a low-level retaining wall surrounding the disputed
property. The second, disturbing public order, focused on the
subsequent demonstrations, in particular the allegation that the
vigils obstructed traffic, caused excessive noise early in the
morning and late at night, and disrupted class at a nearby school.
The trial was led by Judge Hien, with a panel of two other judges

4. (U) In addition to Poloff, diplomats from Australia, the Czech
Republic (representing the European Union), and Norway were allowed
to attend the trials; a Swedish diplomat was not allowed entry. Two
foreign journalists (representing AFP and NPR) and two dozen
domestic journalists also attended the trials, while Reuters and AP
were denied permission to attend. Police officials did not allow
diplomats or the media into the actual courtroom; they watched via
video feed from an adjacent room.

5. (U) Over 1,000 parishioners and other supporters had marched to
the courthouse from the Thai Ha parish, many carrying palm leaves
and wearing pictures of the Virgin Mary around their necks.
Security in the area was tight with hundreds of police, including
riot police, present. As the parishioners arrived in front of the
courthouse, they argued with local officials to allow them to enter
in order to view the trial. In the end, the police agreed to let in
four priests and a small group of family members of the accused.
Throughout the day, the crowd sang and prayed in peaceful support of
the eight on trial.

The Proceedings

6. (U) Of the eight defendants, two had remained in pre-trial
detention -- Ms. Nguyen Thi Nhi for three months and Ms. Ngo Thi
Dung for over two months. The remaining defendants had been
arrested in August and September and were released after detentions
varying from 2 weeks to over a month (Ref B). Nhi and Dung were
seated at the front of the courtroom with three policewomen sitting
on either side and between them. The other six accused sat behind
them and wore large crucifixes around their necks.

7. (U) For most of the trial, prosecutors and judges read the
charges against the eight defendants, questioned the defendants
about their activities at the parish, and listed each of the many
prayer vigils conducted at the disputed site over the past eight
months. At several points in the trial, prosecutors used video
footage of the protestors dismantling a section of the retaining
wall to prove the defendants' involvement.

8. (U) Only two defendants were represented by attorneys -- one
whom, Le Tran Luat, presented a spirited defense of his client Ms.
Nguyen Thi Viet. Luat argued that the prosecution's case was
groundless for three reasons: 1) the Catholic Church owned the
disputed land, so under Vietnamese law the brick wall belonged to
the Church and parishioners could do as they pleased. 2) the
parishioners only tore down a three-meter section of the much larger
wall in mid-August, while one month later the government tore down

HANOI 00001338 002.2 OF 002

the remainder of the wall surrounding the rest of the property in
order to turn the land into a public park (Ref C). In this regard,
parishioners actually did the government a favor by assisting in
dismantling the wall, the attorney argued. 3) Praying and singing
religious hymns should not be considered disturbing the public
order. The attorney also argued that the alleged crimes did not
reach the threshold of severity required under the law for


9. (U) After a thirty-minute deliberation, Judge Hien reread the
charges and pronounced the defendants guilty. In reading the
sentences, Hien noted that of all the defendants, Ms. Nhi had been
the one who had done the most to instigate the others. The
sentences received by the defendants were as follows:

-- Ms. Nguyen Thi Nhi: 15-month suspended sentence with 24 months of
administrative probation. Considering time already served in police
detention, the suspended sentence was reduced to 11 months and 17
-- Ms. Ngo Thi Dung: 13-month suspended sentence and 22 months
administrative probation. Her suspended sentence was reduced to 10
months and 16 days.
-- Mr. Le Quang Kien: 13-month suspended sentence and 22 months
administrative probation.
-- Ms. Nguyen Thi Viet: 12-month suspended sentence and 24 months
administrative probation.
-- Mr. Nguyen Dac Hung: 12-month suspended sentence with
"non-detention political reeducation" (Note: Less invasive than
administrative detention, this involves periodic meetings with
police or other MPS officers. End note.)
-- Mrs. Le Thi Hoi: 15-month suspended sentence with non-detention
administrative reeducation.
-- Mr. Giuse Pham Tri Nang: 12-month suspended sentence with
non-detention administrative reeducation.
-- Mr. Thai Thanh Hai: warning, in consideration of his status as a
college student.

The Crowd Reacts

10. (U) Once news of the verdicts was released, the several hundred
supporters still assembled outside the courthouse broke into loud
applause and began chanting "innocent, innocent." After the trial,
parishioners presented large bouquets of flowers to each of the
defendants upon exiting the courthouse.


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