US calls for release of arrested Vietnam activist

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — The U.S. Embassy in Vietnam expressed deep concern Tuesday about the arrest of a prominent lawyer known for his pro-democracy writings and defense of human rights activists.

Le Cong Dinh, 41, was arrested Saturday at his home in Ho Chi Minh City and accused of violating Article 88 of Vietnam's criminal code, which prohibits distributing information harmful to the government. He faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

The U.S. Embassy issued a statement calling for Dinh's immediate release.

"No individual should be arrested for expressing the right to free speech, and no lawyer should be punished because of the individuals they choose to counsel," the statement said.

According to accounts in Communist Vietnam's state-controlled media, authorities believe Dinh "colluded with domestic and foreign reactionaries" bent on "sabotaging" the state and overthrowing the government.

Dinh, one of Vietnam's most high-profile attorneys, came to prominence several years ago when he defended Vietnamese catfish farmers in a trade dispute with U.S. fishermen. He also represented two human rights attorneys, Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thi Cong Nhan, who were jailed by the government in 2007 for allegedly spreading anti-government propaganda.

In his defense of Dai and Nhan, he made a strikingly direct plea for free expression, highly unusual in a country where the government tightly controls public speech. Dinh has argued it is wrong to accuse those who promote free speech of undermining the state.

The Communist Party newspaper Nhan Dan said Dinh used the trial to "take advantage" of his work as a defense lawyer and "propagandize against the regime and distort Vietnam's constitution and laws."

Authorities also accused Dinh of exploiting a national debate over an expansion of bauxite mining in Vietnam's Central Highlands to "incite people against the Communist Party and the government," according to the official Vietnam News Agency.

Dinh opposed the expansion, which includes a processing plant being built by a Chinese company. The plans have stirred an unusual level of debate in Vietnam, where government policies are rarely challenged.

Opponents of the plans say they would cause grave environmental damage. They also say Vietnam should not allow a Chinese company into the Central Highlands because of its strategic location among the border with Cambodia.

Suspicions of China are deep in Vietnam, which has fought several wars against its northern neighbor, most recently in 1979.

The Central Highlands are home to many of Vietnam's ethnic minority groups.

Dinh studied law at Tulane University in New Orleans for two years on a Fulbright scholarship.

His arrest came just days after Vietnam hosted the 17th Congress of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, a United-Nations affiliated group which supports the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.