May 21, 2010

Law school honors imprisoned Vietnamese lawyer

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A Vietnamese human-rights defense attorney and democracy activist sentenced earlier this year to five years in prison was honored by the Southern Illinois University School of Law during its commencement ceremony last week.

Le Cong Dinh received the law school’s 2010 Rule of Law Citation at the May 15 event. The citation is a formal recognition by the law school faculty of the important tradition of the legal profession that “requires lawyers to stand firm in support of liberty and justice in the face of oppression and, by their words and actions, to honor and support the Rule of Law, even at great personal risk.”

Dinh’s sentence followed a conviction for participating in peaceful activities in support of multi-party democracy, impermissible in Vietnam’s one-party Communist state. He earned a master of law degree from Tulane University.

At his one-day trial, Dinh admitted to attending a three-day training course in Thailand on non-violent political change and meeting with foreign groups, according to the New York Times in January. Dinh indicated influence “by Western attitudes toward democracy, freedom and human rights” during his overseas studies.

A total of 114 students earned law degrees during last week’s ceremony, held at SIUC’s Shryock Auditorium.

A commencement hood and scroll placed on an empty chair in the front row with law school faculty symbolizes the law school standing with lawyers who are suffering for the Rule of Law.

After studying law at Hanoi Law School and Saigon University, Dinh came to the United States as a Fulbright Scholar. He was a vice chairman of the Ho Chi Minh City Bar Association and once represented the government in a legal dispute with the United States over exports of Vietnamese catfish, according to the Rule of Law citation presented at commencement.

Foreign analysts said that charging and convicting Dinh of subversion is the Vietnamese government’s warning about the limits of political discourse in Vietnam and reflect the concern, periodically repeated in the official press, about the destabilizing influence of contacts with the West, according to the citation.

The citation and New York Times noted that Dinh, at a court appearance defending democracy advocates in 2007, said, “Talking about democracy and human rights cannot be seen as anti-government unless the government is against democracy.”

Leonard Gross, professor at the law school, said the honor reflects Dinh’s willingness to “stand up for people’s rights and to do so at considerable risk to himself.” Gross was chair of the law school’s commencement committee recommendation to the faculty that Dinh receive the citation.

“It’s important for us to recognize people who have been willing to risk their owns lives to stand up for the Rule of Law,” Gross said, noting that Dinh and prior recipients take their respective stands on their own moral courage.

“This sends a signal to our community and our students the importance we attach to the Rule of Law and the importance we attach to integrity, even if it means you have to make personal sacrifices,” Gross said.