It could have been me

Martin Bell on Nguyen Vu Binh

A Vietnamese cyber dissident is imprisoned by a government determin

Nguyen Vu Binh is a former journalist, an advocate of reform and an independent voice in politics. I fall into the same three categories myself. The difference is that I am a free man and he is in his third year of a seven-year prison sentence for spying, with three years' house arrest to follow.

Nguyen Vu Binh, 37, worked for a number of years on the Vietnamese Communist Party's official journal. He resigned in 1999 and tried to break into politics by forming the independent Liberal Democratic Party. As an advocate of peaceful political reform, he joined other dissidents to form an anti-corruption association in 2001, which brought the unwelcome attention of the authorities. He was detained in July 2002 and arrested on the spying charge two months later.

His arrest was part of a crackdown on those who had been using email and the internet to exchange ideas and promote freedom of association in Vietnam. Part of the case against him was that, through the internet, he had contacted Vietnamese immigrants in the US. He also wrote an essay, "Vietnam and the Road to Resurrection", outlining his vision for a democratic Vietnam with human rights on a par with other, neighbouring nations - hardly espionage.

Authoritarian regimes feel threatened by the internet. It breaks their monopoly on information; spreads ideas they believe to be seditious; enables citizens to communicate with each other outside the usual, more controllable, channels.

Vietnam has some 5,000 internet cafés. So state power has moved against the new technology. Internet service providers are obliged by law to facilitate easy access by the security agencies to their networks and computers. Under a 2004 directive to combat "bad and poisonous information" circulated online, internet café owners are instructed to monitor their customers, upon pain of being closed down if they allow access to sites forbidden by the authorities. The ministry of culture and information encourages people to inform on those who violate the rules.

Nguyen Vu Binh's offence was to use the internet for the purpose of free expression. He is a political prisoner of the internet age. If he is a criminal, so are most of the rest of us. He is being held in Ba Sao Prison, where his health has deteriorated and his life is at risk.

After a long delay, his wife and two children were allowed to visit him. When the visit was over, his five-year-old daughter turned to the guards and said: "Why don't you let my father go? I will study hard so that when I am grown up I will have a higher position than you do and punish you."

One of the ironies of the case is that corruption is an increasing problem in Vietnam, as the Vietnamese government itself has acknowledged. In a letter to its leaders, Nguyen Vu Binh's wife wrote: "Citizens [are] more aggressive in contributing their thoughts about the depravities they see around them. The government has even encouraged its citizens to be vocal about the embezzlements that they see."

If Vietnam's rulers are serious about fighting corruption, then, instead of treating Nguyen Vu Binh as a criminal, they should release him and make him an anti-corruption commissioner. His treatment is a reproach to them, and to the country's political and judicial system.

I write as a long-time lover of Vietnam. I was there years ago, in different circumstances. Even the name of the capital has changed. But one thing that remains the same - although the force of it is greater today - is that the power of an idea is greater than the power of the state. More than anywhere else in the world, they should know that in Ho Chi Minh City.

To join Amnesty's campaign for the release of Nguyen Vu Binh and others detained for peaceful expression of their beliefs on the internet, go to: www.irrepressible.info