updated 12/27/2009 11:56:57 PM ET 2009-12-28T04:56:57

A former army officer who pressed for democratic reform was convicted of subversion charges Monday and sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison.

Tran Anh Kim was convicted Monday after being accused of "working to overthrow the state" by joining the Democratic Party of Vietnam, publishing pro-democracy articles on the Internet, and joining an organization that promotes a multiparty state.

Kim could have faced the death penalty. But prosecutors sought a lenient sentence, citing his distinguished military record and cooperative attitude.

The former lieutenant colonel is the first in a group of five defendants to be put on trial by Vietnam's communist government.

The five were indicted last week under Article 79 of Vietnam's criminal code, which carries sentences ranging from 12 years to life in prison — or death by firing squad.

Kim's trial was held Monday in the northern province of Thai Binh. The other defendants, including human rights lawyer Le Cong Dinh, are scheduled to go on trial next month in Ho Chi Minh City.

As the proceedings began Monday, Kim said he had simply stood up for his beliefs.

"I joined the Democratic Party of Vietnam and Bloc 8406 to fight for democratic freedom and human rights for the Vietnamese nation through peaceful dialogue and nonviolent means," Kim said.

Vietnam's government routinely convicts and jails its political opponents, but it generally prosecutes them under Article 88, a lesser offense that prohibits spreading "propaganda against the state."

Kim and the others were originally charged under Article 88.

Many diplomats believe the government decided to seek tougher charges as part of a crackdown in advance of the Communist Party Congress, which takes place every five years and is often preceded by jockeying for power by various party factions. The next is in 2011.

Foreign media and diplomats were allowed to follow Monday's proceedings by closed-circuit television at the courthouse.

Kim fought in the Vietnam War and rose through the ranks to become a lieutenant colonel. He became deputy chief of the Thai Binh town military command but lost that post after being convicted of financial mismanagement in 1991.

He was jailed for two years, expelled from the Communist Party in 1992, and dismissed from the army in 1994.

In 2006, prosecutors say, he joined the Democratic Party of Vietnam, an outlawed group the government considers a "reactionary" organization. They say he became the head of the party's organization in northern Vietnam.

Prosecutors also accused Kim of working with "anti-government forces in exile," saying he coordinated with them to publish anti-government documents online and organize anti-government demonstrations.

In June, police thwarted Kim's effort to hang a sign at his house saying "Office of the Democratic Party of Vietnam."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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