Vietnam dissident lawyer in court to appeal jail term
Supporters hold up a banner that reads "Free Le Quoc Quan" outside the Hanoi People's Court of Appeals on February 18, 2014 - by Cat Barton
Scores of police closed roads and formed a security ring around the Hanoi People's Court of Appeals where Le Quoc Quan was in the dock to appeal his October 2013 conviction.
The Catholic lawyer and blogger was jailed for two and a half years on charges which have been denounced by international rights campaigners as politically motivated.
"I am completely innocent. That is for sure. I am not guilty," Le Quoc Quan said as he addressed the court in a mix of English and Vietnamese.
"I confirm once again that I am the victim of a political conspiracy. I object to this trial," said Quan, who was wearing a thick coat and jumper in the courtroom.
Quan -- who is on the 17th day of a hunger strike, according to his brother -- looked tired and thin as he stood in the dock and appeared to swoon at one point, prompting security guards to prop him up.
His lawyer Pham Quang Nghiem told the court that the tax evasion charges were a joke.
"If you want to try Le Quoc Quan for his activism, you don't need to bring him to court for tax evasion," he said.
The 43-year-old lawyer, who blogged on a range of sensitive topics including civil rights, political pluralism and religious freedom, has been in detention since December 2012.
Quan's younger brother, Le Quoc Quyet, told AFP outside the court that the family had not been given permission to attend the hearing.
Shouting "Free Le Quoc Quan" and waving signs calling for the Catholic lawyer's release, around 150 people gathered outside the court as his appeal hearing got under way, causing rush-hour traffic chaos.
The scale of the protest was unusual in Vietnam, where authorities keep a tight lid on dissent.
Hundreds of confused commuters were caught up in the early-morning protest.
Vietnam -- a one-party state -- is regularly denounced by rights groups and Western governments for its intolerance of political dissent and systematic violations of freedom of religion.
Reporters Without Borders said last month that Vietnam was second only to China in the number of bloggers it detained, with at least 34 currently behind bars.
The US Embassy in Hanoi said in October Le Quoc Quan's conviction was part of a "disturbing" trend of Vietnam using tax laws to imprison people for peacefully expressing their political views.
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