Protests as Vietnam dissident lawyer stands trial
A Buddhist nun holds a picture of Le Quoc Quan as hundreds of protestors attempt to approach the People's Court in Hanoi on October 2, 2013
Scores of police formed a ring around the Hanoi People's Court, where lawyer and blogger Le Quoc Quan appeared on tax evasion charges denounced by international rights campaigners as politically motivated.
The scale of the protest is unusual in communist Vietnam, where authorities keep a tight lid on dissent.
Rights groups estimate hundreds of activists are locked up for speaking out against authoritarian communist rule, including at least 46 jailed this year.
Shouting "Free Le Quoc Quan" and waving signs calling for the Catholic lawyer's release, several hundred people blocked a key intersection in the capital, causing rush hour traffic chaos.
"Police prevent us from accessing the court... It is a public court. We request to watch the trial but police stop us," Le Quoc Quyet, the lawyer's younger brother, told AFP.
There was "some violence, the police hit, they kick some people," he said, adding that neither he nor his sister had been allowed into the court room.
An AFP reporter was forced to leave the protest area by plain clothed police.
Le Quoc Quan, who blogged on a range of sensitive topics including civil rights, political pluralism and religious freedom, has been in detention since December 2012.
He is accused of attempting to avoid corporate income tax of more than $20,000 at a company he founded in 2001, according to the state-run VietnamNet online newspaper.
New York-based Human Rights Watch has described the charges as "politically motivated" and called for his immediate release.
"The Vietnamese government appears to be so nervous about its position in society that it is reflexively finding ways to silence and imprison dissident after dissident," said Brad Adams, HRW's Asia director.
Ahead of his trial, activists told AFP that they were being kept under virtual house arrest by the authorities in a bid to prevent them from staging protests near the court.
Hundreds of confused commuters were caught up in the rally, with police forcing buses to turn back as they closed main roads to keep protesters from getting close to the courtroom.
An AFP correspondent was allowed to watch the trial on a screen in a separate observation room, although the audio feed is sometimes cut in such trials if proceedings touch on sensitive matters and reporters were barred from taking in recording or communication equipment.
Vietnam -- where the Communist Party forbids all political debate -- is regularly denounced by rights groups and Western governments for its intolerance of political dissent and systematic violations of freedom of religion.
US officials said in June that Vietnam was holding more than 120 political prisoners.
Reporters Without Borders said in July that Vietnam was second only to China in the number of bloggers it detained.
Another prominent Vietnamese blogger, best known by his pen name Dieu Cay, was charged with tax evasion in 2008.
Dieu Cay, whose real name is Nguyen Van Hai, was given 30 months in jail.
He was not released after completing the sentence and was later charged with conducting anti-state propaganda and sentenced to 12 years.
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