A high-profile dissident Catholic priest denounced Vietnam's Communist Party in a startling display of defiance as he went on trial Friday on charges of disseminating materials intended to undermine the country's government.
Father Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly was led into the Thua Thien Hue Provincial People's Court in central Vietnam along with four alleged accomplices, but he refused to stand and identify himself before the chief judge, Bui Quoc Hiep.
"Down with the Communist Party of Vietnam!" Ly shouted, in a striking outburst in a country where dissent is harshly punished.
Ly, 60, who has been jailed for his pro-democracy activities before, is accused of producing anti-government documents and communicating with anti-communist groups overseas. He could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted in the verdict, expected later Friday.
Authorities say Ly is one of the founders of the "Vietnam Progression Party" and was plotting to merge with overseas democracy activists to form a new political umbrella group called "Lac Hong."
Authorities allowed limited press coverage of the trial, a highly unusual move in a country where judicial proceedings against political defendants are typically conducted behind closed doors.
Photographers were told they would have access to the courtroom during the reading of the verdict, and reporters and foreign diplomats were able to watch the proceedings on a closed-circuit television in a separate room of the courthouse.
Last month, authorities moved Ly from his home in the central city of Hue, where he was under virtual house arrest, and took him to a smaller parish outside the city.
They seized hundreds of documents, six computers and 136 mobile phone cards, and much of that evidence was on display at the front of the courtroom on Friday.
Ly, 60, has spent more than a decade in prison for his political activism and is one of the best-known members of Vietnam's small dissident community. In 2001, after he openly called for linking U.S. trade with Vietnam to Hanoi's human rights record, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Western governments and international human rights groups protested, and Ly was released early in a 2005 prison amnesty.
Charged as accomplices in the case are two men, Nguyen Phong, 32, and Nguyen Binh Thanh, 51 — both of Hue — and two women, Le Thi Le Hang, 44, of Hue, and Hoang Thi Anh Dao, 21, of Gialai Province.
Ly's four co-defendants stood and identified themselves at the start of proceedings Friday, while he defiantly remained seated on a chair.
Ly's arrest comes as Vietnamese authorities have been cracking down on dissidents. On March 6, they arrested Hanoi human rights lawyers Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thi Cong Nhan, accusing them of violating a prohibition on distributing information deemed harmful to the state.