Vietnam: arrest of a pragmatist
Lawyer Le Cong Dinh (right) has always worked to change the system from within – which is exactly why his arrest is troubling, says Roby Alampay On the surface of it, there is nothing new about Vietnam’s arrest on 13 June of a prominent lawyer for the usual charges of spreading anti-state propaganda. Le Cong […]
19 Jun 09

Lawyer Le Cong Dinh (right) has always worked to change the system from within – which is exactly why his arrest is troubling, says Roby Alampay

On the surface of it, there is nothing new about Vietnam’s arrest on 13 June of a prominent lawyer for the usual charges of spreading anti-state propaganda. Le Cong Dinh is American-educated — he obtained a masters degree in law from Tulane University — and well networked with international lawyers and rights and pro-democracy advocates.

The easiest insight into his arrest, therefore, 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 since 2006.

The national and international concern over Le Cong Dinh’s arrest, however, is on quite another level. The attack on a man so vocal is nothing new, but 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.

For as much as Dinh has advocated human rights, democracy, and for the rights of Vietnamese who have clamoured for their rights, he has stayed well within his prescribed boundaries as a lawyer in Vietnam. When he defends bloggers, writers, human rights activists, he does not write from outside Vietnam nor organise campaigns within the country.

He is known for speaking plainly as a lawyer, as an officer of the court, 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 in fact stated and ostensibly valued in the country’s constitution, along, for that matter, with press freedom and freedom of assembly.

Where dissidents carp that the legal guarantees for free expression are nominal at best, the lawyer in Le Cong Dinh is known to have worked with the implicit message of “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.

Despite restrictions, filtering, and the over blocking of websites, the growing openness of the Internet is palpable in Vietnam. Through blogs and other online platforms, Vietnamese people 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 institutionalised suppression, Dinh’s commitment to work from within the system is invaluable. Nor is it easy to come by.

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 alone in facing harassment. Indeed, in 2007 his clients were two fellow lawyers, for whom he successfully pleaded shorter sentences after they had also been effectively penalised for “propagandising 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 propagandise 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 criminalising the lawyer’s professional obligation to defend his clients. By penalising his arguments for free expression, ultimately including those uttered within the boundaries of the court and in the course of litigation, they are harassing the whole legal sector, and further leaving everyone defenseless.

It is not just the Vietnamese who should be worried. Vietnam takes over the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) 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 in Singapore, the direction and momentum for its future is highly dependent on political will.

The Vietnamese government’s treatment of Dinh thus 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 yesterday of three pro-democracy activists accused of colluding with Dinh raises red flags.

There is speculation, too, 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, ironically, was stubborn to push for change within the system. Now that it is he who needs a lawyer, prospects for all he has stood and fought for in Vietnam have become all the more dubious.

Roby Alampay is Executive Director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance

This article was originally published on Asia Times Online