Vietnam sentenced 22 members of a religious group on charges of subversion this week. The harsh punishments are part of an escalating crackdown on dissent in the communist country.
The verdict is "shocking," said Phil Robertson, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, told DW. "These are extremely draconian punishments. From our point of view, these people were imprisoned for exercising their freedom of expression and their right to freedom of association."
All 22 of those convicted were members of an organization known as Hoi Dong Cong Luat Cong An Bia Son, which means "the council for laws and public affairs of Bia Son," a mountain in the province of Phu Yen, where the trial was conducted.
The People's Court of Phu Yen province handed down a life sentence to the group's 65-year-old leader Phan Van Thu. The other defendants were given between 10 and 17 years, followed by up to five years’ house arrest.
They were charged with "aiming to overthrow the people's administration," lawyer Nguyen Huong Que told the AFP news agency.
The group, which was founded in the 1960s and banned in 1975, is said to have about 300 members. Its objectives are not completely clear. Observers disagree on whether it is first and foremost a Buddhist organization, a political grouping or an environmental NGO. However, Vietnamese state media do seem to agree that the group has pursued its aims in a non-violent manner.
This is why the lengthy jail sentences are difficult to comprehend. "It's very hard to say, simply because these trials are so opaque" Robertson said but he added that they could be considered as warnings.
Gerhard Will of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin agreed that the harsh sentencing served this purpose. "A long prison sentence acts as a warning to others," including members of religious groups as well as dissidents. The message is that the government has power and will punish anyone with a different opinion.
Both Robertson and Will see the recent verdict as part of a particularly repressive tendency that has gotten worse over the past two years.
In January, 14 dissidents, including Catholics, bloggers, students and farmers, were sentenced to jail terms on similar charges.
The crackdown "is becoming more systematic, more widespread," said Robertson.
He explained that there was growing tension in Vietnam because of the current economic crisis. He said hyperinflation was making the government "nervous."
The government was able to justify its rule in recent years because of a simple transaction, agreed Will. "We give you economic growth and improve your living standards but in return we want single-party rule, it said. However, the compromise that the country was supported by for some time is now broken."
Dissent is also coming from within. On January 19, 72 Vietnamese intellectuals and erstwhile high-ranking politicians, including former Justice Minister Nguyen Dinh Loc and former Minister of Science and Technology Nguyen Quang A, signed a petition demanding a change to the country's constitution.
They not only demanded that the "Socialist Republic of Vietnam" be renamed as the "Democratic Republic of Vietnam," but also called for universal human rights, the separation of powers and for the army to put protecting the country above protecting the Communist Party.
However, while those who signed the petition are hoping the country will open up, the government’s Leninist wing wants even more control to be given to the police and judiciary.
"I have the impression that there are strong voices in the party which believe repression is the solution. This faction is much stronger now than it was a year or two ago," said Will.
However, he also added that the fact that the government itself had proposed a referendum so citizens themselves could give their opinion on a new constitution showed that it was not "monolithic" and that there were different factions with different opinions on how the country should be led out of the crisis.