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June 20, 2003

Trial in Vietnam Shows Dangers For Dissidents

By Margot Cohen

HANOI, Vietnam (The Wall Street Journal) -- Until his arrest nearly 15 months ago, Pham Hong Son spent much of his time developing innovative ways to market tangerine-flavored
children's multivitamins to Vietnamese parents. Sold under the brand Plusssz, the Hungarian-made vitamins make a fizzy descent into a glass of water.

But on Wednesday, Mr. Son's promising marketing career dissolved almost as swiftly as those effervescent tablets. After a one-day trial, a Hanoi court sentenced the 34-year-old executive to 13 years in prison for espionage.

According to the indictment, Mr. Son spread antigovernment propaganda via the Internet, accepted funds from overseas opposition groups and sought to "advocate pluralism and a multiparty system" in Vietnam. Among his alleged crimes: posting online a Vietnamese translation of "What Is Democracy?" -- a generic essay culled from a U.S. State Department Web site and previously translated and handed out by American Embassy staff at some official functions.

Despite Vietnam's steady progress on economic reform, Mr. Son's case serves as a cautionary tale for those seeking to measure the pace of political change in the country. International human-rights groups view Mr. Son's trial as a sign of the Vietnamese government's determination to maintain strict control over Internet use and suppress freedom of speech.

"He doesn't seem to have done anything but peacefully express his views on certain issues, as far as we can tell," says one American diplomat. "That shouldn't be a crime." Diplomats were barred from attending the trial.

On Thursday, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Phan Thuy Thanh told reporters that the government is "well aware of the importance of the Internet in the age of information explosion" and has tried hard to promote Internet use in Vietnam. She also said that while Vietnam's constitution guarantees freedom of speech, Vietnamese law regulates the storage and reception of electronic information. And any information that threatens the nation's security, incites social disorder or violates "Vietnamese values and traditions, cannot be allowed to be floating on the Internet."

There is no dispute that Mr. Son also wrote an essay last year addressed to Communist Party Secretary-General Nong Duc Manh, which he e-mailed to government ministries and the local press. He appealed to Mr. Manh's stated support for "grass-roots democracy" to promote broader debate over the nation's future. The prosecution of Mr. Son illustrates the apparent divide between party rhetoric and the government's actual tolerance for open discussion of political reform.

The trial also appears to highlight the party's fears of a potential new threat: yuppie dissidents. As a young, well-educated, upwardly mobile businessman, Mr. Son owns a three-story home in Hanoi's posh West Lake district and holds degrees in medicine and management. Vietnamese entrepreneurs and businessmen like Mr. Son, foot soldiers in Vietnam's campaign for a successful transition to a market economy, mostly avoid dabbling in politics. They usually prefer to concentrate on new opportunities in Vietnam's fast-growing economy.

"You just conduct your business and do not talk about politics. Then you won't have any problems," says one Hanoi businessman. That leaves the nation's tiny community of political dissidents to be dominated by retired war veterans, gray-haired academics and religious leaders, all subject to sporadic arrest or police surveillance. It's unclear why Mr. Son decided to step out of line.

During his 15 months in detention, authorities barred visits from his wife and two sons. By the time he was brought to trial, Mr. Son became so convinced of his inability to gain a fair hearing that he decided against hiring a defense lawyer, say people close to the family.

Friends describe Mr. Son as a self-made man who escaped a poor childhood in northern Nam Dinh province. His father was a war veteran, and two elder brothers also fought against American troops. He attended medical school, but after briefly working as a doctor turned his attention to business. He focused on improving his English and French-language skills and learning modern management techniques. After graduating in 1997 from a French-run business school in Hanoi, he joined the Hanoi office of Alcon, a Swiss company that distributes medicinal eye drops in Vietnam.

"He was a good manager. He was very careful in his work," recalls Alcon employee Dinh Tuyet Hanh. She says Mr. Son never expressed any political views in the office. "Most of the time he focused on making a better life for his family," Ms. Hanh says.

To earn extra money, Mr. Son also translated documents for academic researchers. A voracious reader, Mr. Son's tastes ran from Tolstoy and Dickens to Western business manuals such as "The One-Minute Manager," along with Marxist tracts and biographies of Ho Chi Minh. For a time, he ran his own bookshop. He later came to work for Tradewind Asia, a Hungarian company that distributes pharmaceutical products and infant formula.

"He was very hard-working, and quite creative," recalls Nguyen Van Hai, the company's Hanoi branch manager. Put in charge of promoting vitamins in northern Vietnam, Mr. Son honed some successful marketing gimmicks. He instructed his staff to conduct taste tests at amusement parks, cinemas and play groups. After sampling the tangerine-flavored Plusssz vitamins, many children would ask their parents to buy them, Mr. Hai explains.

But last year, Mr. Son failed to appear for work for 10 days. Mr. Hai and other former colleagues were surprised to learn of his March 27 arrest. Police raided Mr. Son's home and confiscated his personal computer soon after he e-mailed the essay addressed to Communist Party General-Secretary Nong Duc Manh. In the letter, Mr. Son praised new party resolutions to improve implementation of "grass-roots democracy," a longstanding policy allowing citizens to participate in bottom-up decision-making on development projects and resolve disputes with local officials.

Mr. Son noted that many Vietnamese were still confused over the definition of democracy, and suggested that the government launch a media campaign to educate the public. He argued that such a campaign should include freewheeling discussion of ideas put forth by many sectors, including homegrown dissidents and overseas groups.

"If this is done, people's trust in the Communist Party leadership will be tremendously enhanced," he wrote. Mr. Manh didn't write back. Instead, in April 2002, Mr. Son was indicted on espionage charges. The indictment alleged that he had joined a "reactionary" overseas organization, which had allegedly instructed him to launch a pro-democracy group inside Vietnam aimed particularly at youth.

The text of the indictment notes that during the police investigation, however, Mr. Son claimed that many e-mails lodged in his computer's hard drive were the handiwork of "hackers," and denied receiving money from dissidents based overseas.

Mr. Son's conviction Wednesday is expected to add to escalating complaints this year from European and American legislators over Vietnam's human-rights record. For their part, however, Vietnamese officials consistently say they owe no apologies. In early May, Vietnamese President Tran Duc Luong said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal: "I'm very proud that Vietnam understands and fully follows the human-rights issue. We do not lag behind other countries on this."
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