By John Pomfret

Washington Post Staff Writer

Thursday, October 28, 2010; 6:11 AM

HANOI -- In the run-up to a visit by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Vietnam has arrested two bloggers, refused to release another blogger after he completed a prison sentence and convicted three labor activists and six Catholic villagers on human rights-related offenses.

The cases, which all occurred this week and which the U.S. embassy expressed concern about in a statement on Thursday, threaten the significant progress that has been made between the United States and Vietnam in recent months.

Pushed together by a shared concern over the rise of China, officials from both countries boast that the relationship is better than ever. With her two-day visit starting Friday, Clinton will have been to Vietnam twice in the past four months. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates was here for talks two weeks ago, and Washington and Hanoi held their first-ever security dialogue between defense officials in August.

Analysts are split about the meanings of this week's arrests and court cases. Some, generally Western diplomats, say they are part of a yearlong crackdown on dissent as Vietnam's Communist Party readies for its first party congress in five years in January. Since last October, 21 people have been sent to jail for crimes involving a peaceful expression of their views.

Other analysts, generally Vietnamese, believe that the activity this week is part of a pattern related to an internal struggle within the Vietnamese Communist Party over its relations with the United States. Vietnam has moved closer to the United States as a hedge against aggressive behavior by China. But that shift is controversial within a party that remains deeply influenced by China and fears that the United States is committed to overthrowing the Vietnamese political system.

So, often as important meetings with U.S. officials approach, Vietnamese security services crack down on dissent, wrong-footing generally pro-American politicians. In 2007, a month before the first state visit to the United States by Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet, Vietnamese judicial authorities opened court proceedings in the central city of Hue to foreign journalists for the first time in the one-day trial of the Rev. Nguyen Van Ly. The Catholic priest was sentenced to eight years on charges of disseminating information to undermine the state, and the trial generated a famous photograph of Ly being muzzled by a security official as he shouted "Down with the Communist Party."

A year later, in May 2008, Vietnamese authorities arrested two investigative journalists reporting on one of the country's biggest corruption cases a month before Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung visited the United States. An official who accompanied Dung on his U.S. trip said the prime minister was uncomfortable about the arrests.

In the cases this week, a court in southern Vietnam on Tuesday sentenced three labor activists to up to nine years in prison for instigating strikes and distributing anti-government leaflets. Nguyen Hoang Quoc Hung, 29, was convicted of disrupting security and given a nine-year sentence. Two others, Doan Huy Chuong and Do Thi Minh Hanh, both 25, will serve seven years. The three were accused of organizing a strike at a shoe factory in Tra Vinh Province last year and of sending photographs of the strikes to post on the Internet.

In the other case, six Catholic villagers were convicted in a one-day trial in the central city of Danang after a dispute over a cemetery. The dispute occurred when villagers tried to bury an 82-year-old woman. Four of the accused received nine-month suspended jail terms, but two others were sent to jail for terms of nine months and one year, respectively. Several U.S. congressmen alleged that police had beaten the Catholics.

In the blogging cases, a well-known gossip columnist, Le Nguyen Huong Tra, was arrested Tuesday in Ho Chi Minh City on charges of defamation after she posted an item alleging that the son of a senior security official had had affairs with beauty queens and dancers.

Also in Ho Chi Minh City, police continued to squeeze two other bloggers known for posts criticizing China. Phan Thanh Hai was taken into custody on Monday, and police continued to detain Nguyen Van Hai, who writes under the name of Dieu Cay. Dieu Cay was supposed to be released from jail on Oct. 20 after a 2½ year sentence on tax evasion charges. Dieu Cay was arrested for a series of blogs calling for anti-China demonstrations before the Beijing Summer Olympics.

Vietnam is estimated to have around 50 people in jail for politically related crimes. While Vietnam's human rights policies are often a target of criticism in the United States -- Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) called on Clinton this week to raise the issue during her trip - Hanoi boasts a significantly more rambunctious political system than Burma, North Korea or even China. The National Assembly engages in real debates over policies, and the media are arguably less censored.

Some U.S. experts worry that if the Obama administration presses Vietnam too much on human rights, it could derail the hard-won progress in the relationship.

For many people in non-government organizations and the human rights community, "Vietnam is a kickable China," said Brantly Womack, professor of politics at the University of Virginia. "It's an easy target."