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Vietnamese Musicians Jailed Amid Crackdown on Dissent

Oct. 31 (Bloomberg) -- Vietnam jailed two musicians for spreading anti-state propaganda, widening a crackdown on criticism of the government as it grapples with an economy that’s poised to grow at the slowest pace in 13 years.

The Ho Chi Minh City People’s Court yesterday sentenced Vo Minh Tri to four years in prison and Tran Vu Anh Binh to six years for composing or editing songs critical of the government, said Tran Vu Hai, Tri’s lawyer. The U.S. yesterday called on Vietnam to release Tri, who was cited in a public petition to President Barack Obama seeking to tie an expansion of trade with Vietnam to the release of imprisoned human rights advocates.

Vietnam has jailed bloggers, journalists and activists it accuses of spreading anti-government propaganda as a fragile banking system, inefficient state-owned firms and corruption weigh on economic growth. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung signaled this month that Vietnam may struggle to meet a growth target of 5.2 percent this year, the slowest pace since 1999.

“The jailing of the two musicians suggests the regime is moving to contain anti-government sentiment,” Giulia Zino, senior Asia analyst at Bath, U.K-based risk consultancy Maplecroft Ltd., said in an e-mail yesterday. “This is a strong warning from the government that public dissent will not be tolerated as the party prepares to enact economic reforms to address public and investor discontent with an underperforming economy.”

‘Insecure’ Government

Dung and Communist Party head Nguyen Phu Trong apologized to the nation this month for mismanaging state-owned enterprises and corruption. Vietnam’s central bank, battling the highest level of bad debt in Southeast Asia, said yesterday it completed a plan to tackle non-performing loans and will present it to the Communist Party’s Politburo.

The finance ministry said today it’s seeking National Assembly approval to raise its 2013 target for domestic bond sales by as much as 33 percent to finance additional spending.

“You’re looking at a government that is increasingly insecure,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said by phone. “It is concerned about the economy and that the legitimacy of a growing economy is now at risk because of crony capitalism. The government is very concerned about the various different strands of opposition or unhappiness with the government somehow combining into a larger dynamic.”

Wealth Gap

Tri’s two songs, entitled “Where is My Vietnam?” and “Who Are You?” highlight the growing wealth gap in the country and urge citizens to “rise up” against invaders and “cowards who sell the country,” a reference to the nation’s conflict with China over disputed territory in the South China Sea.

Binh, 38, and Tri, 34, also allegedly displayed the flag of the former Republic of Vietnam and posted photos and video of the flag on the Internet, online newspaper VietnamNet reported. They were also accused of disseminating anti-state leaflets, it said. The Republic of Vietnam governed the southern region of the country until 1975.

Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Luong Thanh Nghi confirmed the sentences yesterday in a statement and said the trial was “conducted publicly, in accordance with procedures that comply with the law.”

The U.S. said it was “deeply troubled” by the convictions. The U.S. last month called for the release of three bloggers who were jailed Sept. 24 for as long as 12 years.

“The Vietnamese government should release this musician, all prisoners of conscience and adhere to its international obligations immediately,” Christopher Hodges, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, said yesterday, referring to Tri, who’s also known as Viet Khang. “This conviction is the latest in a series of moves by Vietnamese authorities to restrict freedom of expression.”

Two Songs

Both Tri and Binh will serve two years’ probation at the end of their prison terms, said Nghi, the foreign affairs spokesman. They were convicted under Article 88 of the criminal code, Tri’s lawyer said, which allows for a maximum penalty of 20 years in jail.

“To my knowledge, under many governments and regimes, we haven’t seen people going to jail for composing songs,” Hai said. “It’s regrettable that a Vietnamese court jailed someone for composing two songs.”

Binh allegedly composed or edited 11 songs with anti-state content and posted them on a blog he managed, VietnamNet reported. Tri was found guilty of composing two songs, according to Hai.

Premier Dung on Sept. 13 ordered a crackdown on blogs that have attacked his leadership, fueling speculation that political tensions were intensifying as economic growth slows. Vietnam has more bloggers and Internet dissidents in detention than any other country except China and Iran, according to Reporters Without Borders.

“Restricting free speech in the immediate term will further tarnish the government’s reputation and ultimately risks undermining regime stability and the business environment,” said Zino, the Maplecroft analyst.

To contact Bloomberg News staff for this story: Nick Heath in Hanoi at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Lars Klemming at

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