Vietnamese political activists appeal for release

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HANOI, Nov 27 (Reuters) Two Vietnamese political activists jailed for ''spreading propaganda against the state,'' today appealed their convictions, as lawyers argued in court they had a right to freedom of expression.

Lawyers for Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thi Cong Nhan, whose release has been called for by the European Union and the United States, told Superior Court judges in the communist-run country that their clients were peaceful and should be set free.

''We conclude there is no criminal and no legal foundation,'' Le Cong Dinh, a lawyer for both defendants, told the court.

''Therefore, they are not guilty and the court should give them freedom.'' It was unclear when the appeals judges would announce their decision.

Dai, 38, and Nhan, 28, are both Protestants and lawyers. They advocated a multiparty system and gave legal advice to people who said authorities prevented them from practicing religion.

The government says they broke the law and were not convicted for their political views. They were charged and convicted in May of ''spreading propaganda against the state'' and defaming the ruling Communist Party.

They were charged under the criminal code and sentenced in a four-hour trial in Hanoi People's Court to five years and four years respectively. Each also received several years of house arrest in verdicts that many of Vietnam's Western trade partners and allies decried as too harsh.

In today's hearing one defence lawyer, Dang Trung Dung said, ''Vietnam is a member of the World Trade Organisation and it is time it should abide by international conventions''.

He said his clients ''have the right to argue, to write articles''.

Vietnam joined the WTO in January, part of Hanoi's policy to open the economy. However, the government is intolerant of advocates of a multiparty system and has rounded up about 30 activists this year.

Both Dai and Nhan were quietly defiant at the hearing, which foreign journalists and diplomats observed in a separate room with their interpreters.

''I just have different opinions from the Communist Party and I have been jailed for the last nine months for being a political dissident, not breaking the law,'' said Dai, in a dark suit and a white shirt.

Nhan said, ''We see that the democracy situation in Vietnam is very bad.'' Reuters SZ RS1235

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