How Governments Punish Their Detractors

By Thai Nguyen-Khoa

For students of democracy, as the current news juxtaposed, there emerges a curious coincidence about ways governments handle their detractors: 1) the high-profile verdict of I. Lewis Libby, 2) the arrests of human rights and democracy activists in Vietnam, and 3) the death of Ivan Safronov, a Russian military correspondent who fell from a fifth story window to his death, fueling speculation that he might have been killed for his critical reporting of the Putin regime.

By degree of comparison, all points to the criminal wrongdoings of governments against its citizens, whose actions although critical are healthy, necessary and proper in a well-functioning or democratically-aspiring society.

In the leak of the identity of Valerie Plame, a CIA operative and the wife of ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, it’s been long established that it was the work of a vindictive White House.

On July 14, 2003, following his trip to Africa, Mr. Wilson wrote in an op-ed article for the New York Times asserting that the Bush White House had deliberately distorted intelligence regarding Iraq’s attempts to purchase enriched uranium from Niger in order to push its plan to invade Iraq. Testimony at Mr. Libby’s trial showed that Mr. Wilson’s criticisms had angered the White House for blowing a hole in the administration’s reason for going to war with Iraq: that Saddam Hussein had been on a secret plan to develop nuclear weapons.

A few days after the Mr. Wilson’s piece appeared in the New York Times, his wife’s name appeared in a column by Robert Novak. We have learned that Novak’s source was Richard Armitage, the deputy secretary of state, and Karl Rove, Mr. Bush’s chief political advisor and his press secretary Ari Fleisher, who had all been discussing the matter with reporters. Vice President Dick Cheney was apparently angry that Mr. Wilson had been dispatched to Niger by the CIA (where his wife worked) and was using the fact-finding mission to discredit the White House war plans.

No sooner than Hanoi had finished hosting the APEC meetings, joined the WTO, was removed from American State Department’s Country of Particular Concern and granted Permanent Normal Trade Relation by the United States, than it began the worst crack down on peaceful dissidents in 20 years. The arrests of Nguyen van Ly, a Catholic priest in Hue, and attorneys Le thi Cong Nhan and Nguyen van Dai in Hanoi, stunned the international community in light of Hanoi’s blatant reneging on its recent commitment to respect human rights.

Father Nguyen van Ly has been a prisoner of conscience for 13 years, is now the founder of “block 8406,” a democracy movement that was launched in April 2006, which comprised of several thousands individuals throughout Vietnam and overseas who signed the declaration calling for democracy and human rights.

Nguyen van Dai, the only practicing human rights lawyer in Vietnam, founded the Committee for Human Rights in Vietnam, and recently received the prestigious Hellman/Hammett award for persecuted writers.

Le thi Cong Nhan, one of the few female lawyers in Vietnam, is the spokesperson for the Vietnam Progression Party, one of several opposition parties that was formed last year. She also represents different labor unions and is a vocal champion for human rights.

Father Ly, attorneys Nguyen van Dai and Le thi Cong Nhan have all been arrested, allowed to be held for four months while awaiting trial without being formally charged with the alleged crime of carrying out propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, ostensibly under Article 88 of the Vietnam’ s Penal Code. Their homes and offices have been raided, their personal computers, cell phones and documents have all been confiscated without being booked into evidence or given receipts for.

“These are all peaceful dissidents. Despite the official rhetoric, the Vietnamese government can’t really pretend to be towards a just and democratic society when it continues to persecute those who articulate different political views, who support multiparty democracy or simply advocate for basic human rights,” said Sophie Richardson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director.

Whether justice was served in the convictions of Mr. Libby, at least in the American rule of law, the system of jurisprudence seems to be at work. Critics may not all be satisfied, some consider Mr. Libby a scapegoat for other higher ups in the Oval Office, but as convoluted as cases in high office maybe, people tend to find out– if not by open trials —  then the court of public opinion, which often is helped along by a free press.

Unlike the undemocratic states, where secret murders may never be  accounted for nor tried, such as the death of reporter Anna Olitkovskaya, whose report into human rights atrocities in Chechnya had made her the enemy of president Vladimir Putin — she was gunned down in the lobby of her appartment building — or Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian spyvictim, whose investigation into the killing of another Kremlin journalist made him a victim of polonium 2 isotopes poisoning.

It is interesting to note that in a democracy such as the United States, where the standard of decency and ethics in government are de-rigueur, that if national interest was not served than at least fair play would be expected. Yet in this case, the current administration appeared to stoop down to the tactics of lesser governments where personal, internecine and vindictive feuds are often used to retaliate against citizens who disagree with the government official line.

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