A court in Vietnam has handed down long jail sentences to over a dozen people found guilty of plotting to overthrow the government. The verdict has triggered widespread condemnation.
The People's court in Nghe An province 300 kilometers (190 miles) south of Hanoi found the 14 defendants guilty of plotting to overthrow the communist state, a charge under Article 79 of the country's penal code that can carry the death penalty.
The judges found the accused - aged 24 to 39 - to have links to the banned US-based opposition group Viet Tan (Vietnam Reform Party) which the Vietnamese government has classified as a terrorist organization.
Court officials declined to provide details of the verdict, but the defense lawyers told international media that three of those charged had been handed 13 year jail sentences and 11 others got sentenced between three and eight years. The 14th accused was handed a three-year suspended sentence, which the lawyers interpret as house arrest, and immediately released from police custody.
Some of the defendants were arrested in 2011 after they had returned from Thailand, where they had attended a workshop on digital security, which the court found to have been subversive.
Twelve of the activists belong to the Catholic Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, which has organized prayer vigils in Vietnam against what they describe as government harassment.
The two-day trial of the bloggers, students and Catholic believers was one of the biggest subversion trials ever held in the country and security was high. Supporters of the accused had gathered around the court house in protest. Some of them were temporarily detained.
Proceedings have been criticized by human rights groups.
"There is nothing to indicate the defendants intended to overthrow the government," Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch told the Reuters news agency.
"This trial is in the middle of a deepening crackdown that's been gradually picking up speed in the past year, year and a half. They're mowing down the ranks of activists in Vietnam," he said.
In a statement, the US embassy in Hanoi said it was "deeply troubled" by reports of the convictions.
rg/kms (AFP, APE, Reuters)