In an official statement, Church leaders attack the manner in which the trial was held. The public supports the two activists, who were actively involved in promoting human rights and religious freedom. Church leaders also slam the authorities for failing to inform the defendants' families about the trial. For some legal experts, the accused could be tried (and convicted) on other charges.

Vinh (AsiaNews) - In a strongly worded communiqué released on 26 October, the Diocese of Vinh slammed the verdict against two members of the Catholic parish of My Yen, leading figures in the struggle for religious freedom and human rights. Church leaders did not mince words in attacking the manner of their conviction, and the so-called public trial by the People's Court in Nghe An province. They also strongly criticised state media for saying that the punishment fit the crime, when both local and international public opinion know that "such cases are handled by the government, which tries (innocent) civilians to cover up misdeeds by public officials".

On 23 October, a court in Vinh, capital of Nghe An province, sentenced Ngo Van Khoi, 53, and Nguyen Van Hai, 43, to seven and six months in prison respectively. The three-hour trial was held in camera, and the defendants' families were informed and so were not present.

When the two men were arrested, a series of protests followed, forcibly suppressed by police. Their detention also triggered confrontations at various levels between government officials and Church leaders, including Vinh Bishop Mgr Paul Nguyen Thai Hop.

For Church leaders in Vinh, "public opinion is absolutely against the unfair and ambiguous verdict" the judges inflicted on the My Yen parishioners. Arrested last June, they were held for weeks without being formally charged. After months in prison and (empty) pledges of release, they were convicted of "causing public disorder" after a swift trial.

In its statement, the diocese noted that the family was not informed about the trial, even though "a notification is required" in such cases, especially if they are high profile.

Vietnam's official media instead praised the authorities for the "transparent" trial, noting also that public opinion was in favour of its outcome.

For its part, "the Diocese of Vinh has continued to petition the authorities to release Ngo Van Khoi and Nguyen Van Hai unconditionally, and compensate them for the damages they suffered," said Fr Paul Nguyen Van Hieu, author of the press release.

Local Catholics are still in shock over the verdict, loudly claiming their innocence.

For some experts in Vietnamese, the two parishioners' legal problems may not be over with just seven and six months in prison. In fact, they are likely to go to court again on other counts, with possibly new and even longer sentences.

The court's "light", almost symbolic sentence might be hide darker schemes. Local authorities could be more heavy-handed in punishing the two men.

Speaking to Eglises d'Asie (EDA), dissident lawyer Nguyen Van Dai said that the first verdict was meant to "test" the reaction of public opinion, and assess its intensity and extent.

Convicted of "causing public disorder", the two defendants could still be tried on three more counts, namely 'illegal detaining people', 'deliberately vandalising citizens' property', and 'deliberately causing injures'. If this were the case, they could expect even longer sentences.

This was in fact indirectly confirmed by Vietnam's state news agency when it reported, "Regarding the [other] charges [.. . ], there will be another trial.