Vietnam activist gets 20 years for 'inciting protests'

The communist country is notorious for jailing its critics but the harsh sentence was the heaviest in years

An outspoken activist in Vietnam was jailed for 20 years Thursday for allegedly calling for an election boycott and inciting environmental protests in the one-party state that has little tolerance for dissent.

The communist country is notorious for jailing its critics but the harsh sentence was the heaviest in years as a hardline administration in charge since 2016 intensifies its crackdown against activists.

Le Dinh Luong was convicted for "attempting to overthrow the state" in a half-day trial against the 52-year-old who appeared gaunt and grey-haired in court in central Nghe An province.

The swift trial was conducted with none of his witnesses allowed to testify, which the court mysteriously blamed on "health reasons", his lawyer Ha Huy Son told AFP.

"I asked for a cancellation because witnesses were not allowed to speak, but they were not brought to court," Son said, confirming the 20-year jail term.

A prominent activist in the region, Luong was accused of posting clips online inciting people to join months-long protests following a toxic leak by a Taiwanese steel firm that caused mass fish deaths in 2016.

Luong was also blamed for calling for an election boycott that year, according to state media.

His wife told AFP Thursday he had been unfairly targeted for trying to help people.

"My husband is innocent. He has only acted on behalf of the poor and victims of injustices," Nguyen Thi Quy said.

Luong joins scores of dissidents, bloggers and lawyers behind bars in Vietnam, where public protests of any kind are banned and political parties prohibited from forming.

All media is state-run in the country and many activists like Luong have turned to social media to air grievances.

But a new cybersecurity bill that requires Facebook and others to hand over user data and remove "offensive" content if requested by the government threatens to censor one of the few remaining platforms available to activists in the country.

Human Rights Watch slammed the charges against Luong ahead of Thursday's verdict.

"Locking people up for simply exercising their rights isn't working, and more activists will continue to step forward," deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said.