BANGKOK (Dec 28) — In the first of a series of trials of dissidents in Vietnam, a court on Monday convicted a former army officer of subversion for pro-democracy activities and sentenced him to five and a half years in prison.

The conviction of the former officer, Tran Anh Kim, 60, comes as the government is tightening controls on dissent in advance of a Communist Party congress in early 2011.

He is one of five activists who were arrested in July and charged this month with the capital crime of subversion. Prosecutors asked for a lighter sentence in view of the military background of Mr. Kim, a wounded veteran.

Sentences in political cases are generally determined in advance, and the trial, held in Thai Binh Province in northeastern Vietnam, took just four hours.

The other four campaigners are to go to trial next month. The most prominent among them is Le Cong Dinh, 41, an American-educated lawyer who has defended human rights campaigners and has called for multi-party democracy.

The others are Nguyen Tien Trung, who recently studied engineering in Paris; Tran Huynh Duy Thuc; and Le Thang Long.

They are among dozens of dissidents and Internet bloggers who have been arrested in recent months as the government attempts to set the boundaries of public speech before the party congress which is held every five years, diplomats and political analysts said.

In court, the defiant Mr. Kim acknowledged his membership in the Democratic Party of Vietnam, an outlawed group of small affiliated parties and opposition factions. In June, Mr. Kim attempted to hang a sign at his house saying, “Office of the Democratic Party of Vietnam.”

He also said he had joined Bloc 8406, a group of petitioners calling for democratic elections and a multiparty state. The petition was originated on April 8, 2006 — hence its name — but Mr. Kim was not one of the original 118 signatories.

A principal architect of Bloc 8406, a Catholic priest, Nguyen Van Ly, was convicted and sentenced along with four other dissidents in March 2007. He received an eight-year prison term for “overtly revolutionary activities” and “conspiring with reactionary forces,” according to the official Vietnam News Agency.

Journalists who watched the proceedings on closed-circuit television quoted Mr. Kim as saying he had been fighting for “democratic freedom and human rights through peaceful dialogue and nonviolent means.”

“I am a person of merit,” he was quoted as saying. “I did not commit crimes.”

Judge Tran Van Loan said Mr. Kim had participated in what he called an organized crime against the state, cooperating with “reactionary Vietnamese and hostile forces in exile.”

“This was a serious violation of national security,” the judge said.

The site of Mr. Kim’s trial, Thai Binh, was likely to resonate with government loyalists and dissidents alike. The coastal province is the birthplace of some of the country’s legendary military heroes and political leaders, including Politburo members, senior generals and Vietnam’s first cosmonaut, Pham Tuan.

But Thai Binh also has been home to some of the most ardent critics of the government, notably the writer Duong Thu Huong, whose banned novel, Paradise of the Blind, was a searing description of life in postwar Vietnam, and Thich Quang Do, a Buddhist monk who has been a critic of the Communist regime for decades.

In 1997, farmers and workers in Thai Binh staged a violent rebellion against local party leaders over tax increases, land seizures and the misuse of public funds. The violence unnerved the central government, which dismissed a number of party bosses in Thai Binh but also instituted a harsh crackdown there on public gatherings and political dissent.

(Seth Mydans reported from Bangkok, and Mark McDonald from Hong Kong, Source: