Vietnam police arrest well-known dissident lawyer

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Vietnamese police have detained a well-known dissident lawyer, escalating a crackdown on those who speak out against the country's one-party, authoritarian rule.

Le Quoc Quan was arrested on his way to drop off his children at school Thursday in the capital, Hanoi, according to the Vietnamese Redemptorist Church's website. The state-run Tuoi Tre newspaper reported Friday that Quan was detained for alleged tax evasion.

Quan, 41, had recently complained of harassment by authorities and required hospital treatment in August after being beaten by men he claimed were sent by the state. Since that incident, he had taken to carrying a golf club with him for self-defense.

Neither authorities nor Quan's family were available for comment.

Quan, who was detained in 2007 for three months on his return from a U.S. government-funded fellowship in Washington, is one of Vietnam's better-known dissidents and maintains a popular blog that highlighted human rights abuses and other issues off-limits to the state media.

In an interview with The Associated Press in September, Quan said he was under constant surveillance and that he, his family and staff received frequent warnings and pressure from authorities. But he pledged to keep speaking out against the government and in favor of multi-party democracy and freedom of speech and religion.

Vietnam converted to a market economy in the late 1980s and wants to integrate with the world, but maintains strict controls on freedom of speech and political expression. Bloggers, activists and others are routinely arrested and imprisoned. Foreign media representatives are allowed to live in Vietnam but are subject to restrictions on where they can travel and what they can report.

The Internet has emerged as a vital organizing tool for dissidents in recent years, and there has been a surge of blogs and Facebook pages highlighting criticism of the government. The rise of the Internet has combined with an economic slowdown, leaving the ruling elite feeling vulnerable.

In a related development, a court in Ho Chi Minh City Friday upheld long jail sentences two bloggers whose cases have attracted international criticism: Nguyen Van Hai, who received 12 years, and Ta Phong Tan, who received 10.

Judges said there were no grounds to alter the sentences passed down against the two in September for conducting "propaganda against the state", according to lawyer Ha Huy Son. A third member of the so-called "Free Journalist's Club," Phan Thanh Hai, had his four-year sentence reduced to three.

Nguyen Van Hai, who blogged under the name of Dieu Cay or tobacco pipe, was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in jail in 2008 for what international human rights groups said were trumped-up tax evasion charges. He served out his sentence in October 2010, but was not released and charged with a new crime.

Last week, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung gave a fresh warning to dissidents, ordering police to prevent people from "forming opposition political groups to carry out sabotage and that go against the interests of the country and the people."