Hanoi: A prominent Vietnamese blogger was handed a five-year jail term Wednesday on anti-state charges, a heavy sentence that was roundly condemned by lawyers and media watchdogs as a "travesty of justice".
Nguyen Huu Vinh, more commonly known as Anh Ba Sam, was arrested in 2014 and has been held in detention ever since, accused of disseminating anti-government articles on his wildly popular news site.
After a day-long trial amid heavy security in central Hanoi, Vinh and his assistant, Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy "were found guilty of abusing democratic freedoms", the judge, Nguyen Van Pho, told the court.
"The defendants` acts were dangerous for society," the judge said, adding that during the investigation and at the court, both defendants "were not honest... and did not admit their crimes".
Both Vinh, 60, and Thuy, 35 -- who was sentenced to three years jail -- denied the charges under article 258 of the criminal code, which is one of several vaguely worded provisions that rights groups say is used to pursue regime critics.
"I am completely innocent," Vinh told the court in his final words before the verdict was announced, according to an AFP reporter in the official observation room for media and diplomats.
According to the official verdict, the blogs run by the defendants, which attracted more than 3.7 million page views, "misrepresented the party`s line... and lowered public trust", in Vietnam`s communist leaders.
"This is an unjust and illogical sentence," said Ha Huy Son, a defence lawyer speaking at the court after the verdict was announced.Vinh, once a policeman himself, founded the well known political and social blog "Ba Sam" in 2007 -- initially to store articles for his own reference.
The blog then became a news aggregator with links to major stories in state-run newspapers as well as blog posts from activists.
Constant hacking attacks forced Vinh to regularly change the blog`s web address.
It was taken down shortly after his arrest and has not been available since.
Vietnam bans private media and all newspapers and television channels are state-run. Lawyers, bloggers and activists are regularly subject to arbitrary arrest and detention.
The harsh sentence is "a travesty of justice", said Shawn Crispin of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
"If Vietnam wants to be taken seriously... these types of anti-state convictions must stop," he said, calling for the immediate release of the bloggers.
The CPJ said that the number of jailed journalists in Vietnam had fallen from 16 to six, according to their most recent data.
As the court opened early Wednesday, dozens of protestors waved photographs of Vinh and chanted demands for his release, before scores of uniformed and plain clothed police forced them to disperse.
At least two people were arrested when police broke up the demonstration.
Vo Van Tao, 63, a journalist and friend of Vinh, said he had travelled from southern Nha Trang city to Hanoi by car to attend the trial because authorities prevented him from flying.
"Ba Sam is innocent, he`s a hero. He did good work for the people of this country," he told AFP at the protest opposite the court in Hanoi.
Academic and dissident Nguyen Quang A, who was later detained by police after the protest Wednesday, told AFP that Vinh was on trial because "a lot of people read his blog", but the strategy would backfire and trigger greater public interest in what he had to say.