HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — An appeals court upheld the seven-year prison sentence for the dissident son of one of Vietnam's founding revolutionaries Tuesday, despite arguments that his support for a multiparty system did not mean he was against the Communist Party.
The ruling against Cu Huy Ha Vu drew immediate criticism from activists and the U.S. government, which said it had serious concerns about human rights in Vietnam despite its improving relations with Hanoi.
Vu, a human rights lawyer educated in France, said he was innocent of charges including spreading propaganda against the state and called the case against him a conspiracy.
"I did not oppose the Communist Party of Vietnam," Vu told the court. "I only demanded a multiparty system that would allow healthy competition for the ultimate interests of the people and of the nation."
Prosecutors said, however, that Vu's actions violated national security and abused freedom of speech.
At one point during the hearing, as the prosecutor cited evidence suggesting Vu had branded the government a dictatorship, Vu interrupted and said "Yes, it's a dictatorship." He was seen turning to his wife and uncle in the gallery and holding up his fingers in a victory sign three times.
Vu's case has been seen as a test for the government, given the notoriety of his family's allegiance to Vietnam. He is the son of Cu Huy Can, a well-known Vietnamese poet and revolutionary leader in the government formed by late President Ho Chi Minh when he declared independence from France in 1945.
The government does not tolerate challenges to its one-party rule, but Hanoi maintains that only lawbreakers are punished.
Vu's arrest and trial in April have been the subject of much Internet chatter, with many questioning whether the initial sentence, including an additional three years of house arrest, was too harsh.
Vu, who holds a law doctorate from the Sorbonne in Paris but no license to practice in Vietnam, has twice tried to sue the prime minister — once over a controversial Chinese-built bauxite mining project, and again after the premier blocked class-action lawsuits from being filed. Both cases were thrown out of court.
Vu was convicted of calling for an end to the one-party rule, defaming the state, demanding the abolishment of the Communist Party's leadership and calling the war against the United States a civil war.
The appeals court on Tuesday confirmed the verdict and sentence, saying there was no basis for dismissing the case.
Presiding Judge Nguyen Van Son said the 53-year-old Vu had demonstrated "contempt for the law and could not be re-educated."
After the one-day hearing, Vu said the decision was a form of "revenge" against him and vowed to continue to fight for Vietnam.
"My family of four generations has been fighting for and dying for the country," Vu said, adding that his father was "one of the people who gave birth to this regime that is putting me on trial today."
Foreign media and diplomats were barred from the courtroom, but were allowed to watch the proceedings via closed-circuit television from an adjacent room. No cameras or tape recorders were permitted.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said an officer from the U.S. Embassy was allowed to attend.
"We continue to urge the government of Vietnam to immediately release Mr. Vu, as well as all other prisoners of conscience, and believe that no individual should be in prison for exercising their right to free speech," Toner told a news conference in Washington on Tuesday.
He described the U.S. relationship with its former enemy as generally very good, but said Washington would continue to press the Vietnamese government on human rights issues.
Human Rights Watch criticized the initial trial, during which one of Vu's defense attorneys was ejected from the court and the other three walked out in protest after repeatedly being denied a request for access to 10 interviews Vu gave to foreign media that were being used as key evidence against him.
"Dr. Vu was jailed for political reasons in a trial that violated his rights," the group's deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said in a statement Tuesday.
About a dozen of Vu's supporters gathered outside the Hanoi courthouse Tuesday before police sealed off the area. One woman waved a placard that read: "My brother is innocent."
Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.