Vietnam jails activist for livestreaming pollution march

Hoang Duc Binh, center right, and Nguyen Nam Phong, center left, appear in court in the central province of Nghe An, Vietnam, Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018. Binh was convicted of abusing democratic freedoms to infringe on the interest of the state and opposing officers on duty and given 14 years in prison while Phong received two years in jail for opposing officers on duty at the trial that lasted half a day. (Vietnam News Agency/Bich Hue via AP)

HANOI, Vietnam — A court in central Vietnam sentenced an activist to 14 years in jail Tuesday for livestreaming fishermen marching to file a lawsuit against a Taiwan-owned steel plant's spill of toxins into the ocean.

Following a trial by the People's Court in Nghe An province that lasted half a day Tuesday, Hoang Duc Binh was convicted of abusing democratic freedoms to infringe on the interests of the state, organization and people and opposing officers on duty, lawyer Ha Huy Son said.

Fellow activist Nguyen Nam Phong was given 2 years in jail for opposing officers on duty.

During last February's livestream on Facebook, Binh commented that the fishermen were stopped and beaten by authorities. Son said Binh told the court that he made the comments, but he denied committing a crime because what he said was true.

The court said his comments were untrue and slandered authorities.

The U.S. was "deeply troubled" by the two activists' convictions and sentences "under vague articles" of the law, State Department spokesman Heather Nauert said in a statement from Washington.

The $10.6 billion steel complex owned by Formosa Plastics Group, which includes a steel plant, a power plant and a deep sea port in Ha Tinh province, discharged toxins such as cyanide and phenol during a test run in April 2016.

It killed massive amounts of fish and other sea life along more than 200 kilometers (125 miles) of coastline, devastating fishing communities and tourism in four central provinces. The plant owner has paid $500 million in compensation.

The chemical spill, one of the country's worst environmental disasters, sparked rare protests.

Despite economic reforms three decades ago that opened up the communist-ruled country to foreign investment and trade, making it one of fastest growing economies in the region, the one-party state maintains tight control on all aspects of life including the media and has zero tolerance for dissent.

Eight people have been convicted and given prison sentences for spreading propaganda against the state over the past month.

International human rights groups and some Western governments have criticized Vietnam for punishing those who peacefully express their views. Hanoi maintains that only law breakers are punished.

Nauert, in the U.S. reaction to Tuesday's convictions, said the trend of arrests and harsh sentences for peaceful activists in Vietnam was "very concerning" and called on Vietnam to release all prisons of conscience immediately.

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This story has been changed to correct the date of the chemical spill.

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