Vietnam blogger's mother 'dies in self-immolation'

The mother of a prominent Vietnamese blogger has died after setting herself on fire ahead of her daughter's trial for propaganda against the Communist state, people close to the family said Monday.

Ta Phong Tan, a 43-year-old Catholic former policewoman, was arrested in September 2011 and has been held in detention along with two other bloggers, one of whose case has been raised by US President Barack Obama.

Tan's mother Dang Thi Kim Lieng set herself ablaze early Monday, according to Catholic activists and lawyers whose accounts to AFP were corroborated by reports on dissident blogs and the BBC's Vietnamese-language service.

"Her wounds were very serious and she died on the way to the hospital," said Dinh Huu Thoai, a priest close to the family of Tan, who is due in court in Ho Chi Minh City next week alongside the two other bloggers.

The trio are accused of "distorting the truth, denigrating the party and state" by posting hundreds of political articles on the banned website "Free Journalists Club" of Vietnam, as well as writing on their own blogs.

Lieng, 64, is reported to have set fire to herself in front of the offices of the People's Committee of Bac Lieu -- the local authorities in Tan's native province -- according the Chuacuuthe Catholic blog.

"She was very much worried about her daughter... she was very worried about her daughter's trial... she was worried she would never see her daughter again," Catholic activist Le Quoc Quan told AFP.

Repeated attempts to contact Tan's family members were unsuccessful, as their mobile phones and landlines were unreachable on Monday, while there was no official confirmation of the incident from the authorities.

Tan's lawyer, Nguyen Quoc Dat, said he had heard from several sources that his client's mother had died after setting herself on fire but he had not been able to speak to any family members to confirm it firsthand.

Tan used her blog to denounce corruption and injustice in Vietnam's legal system.

She was due to stand trial alongside Phan Thanh Hai, who blogged on highly sensitive topics including territorial disputes with China, and Nguyen Van Hai, better known by his online alias Dieu Cay.

President Obama raised Dieu Cay's case in a statement to mark World Press Freedom Day in May this year.

The hearing for the trio is set to start on August 7, Dieu Cay's lawyer Ha Huy Son told AFP previously.

They are due to be tried under article 88 of the Criminal Code, which covers conducting propaganda against the one-party communist state and carries a maximum sentence of 20 years' imprisonment, according to their lawyers.

In a January report, US-based Human Rights Watch said Hanoi had "intensified its repression" of dissidents in the last year, with dozens of peaceful activists being jailed under "vaguely defined articles" of the penal code.

"Obviously, it's a tragedy," Phil Robertson, HRW's Asia deputy director, told AFP in response to Lieng's death. "The larger issue is what prompted this."

The Vietnamese government "is driving people to desperation due to deepening crackdowns on human rights", he said.

"This was an act of desperation, trying to somehow signal to the government what its repression is doing to families," he said, calling on donors to do more to seek the release of the three bloggers currently facing trial.

"This is not just a tragedy for one family. This is a tragedy for the whole country," he added.

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