Catholic church in Hanoi, Vietnam. (World Watch Monitor)

Two Catholic environmental activists have been jailed in Vietnam for helping hundreds of fishermen to sue a Taiwanese steel plant for polluting coastal waters, reports UCA News.

The US State Department has condemned the sentences of 14 years for Hoang Duc Binh, 35, and two years for fellow activist Nguyen Nam Phong, 38. Both men were charged with resisting arrest. Binh was also charged with “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe the interests of the state, the legitimate interest and rights of organisations and citizens”. His sentence was described by fellow activists as “one of the harshest” to have been imposed on an activist in Vietnam.

The US State Department said it was “deeply troubled” by the convictions.

It is not the first time Vietnam’s government has come down hard on Catholic activists involved in campaigning against the Taiwanese Formosa Plastics Group over the toxic waste spill from its steel plant in 2016.

Last month a provincial court upheld the five-year jail sentence of Christian blogger Nguyen Van Oai, who backed the fishermen demanding compensation from Formosa. Also in January, four Catholic activists were sentenced to a total of 24 years in prison for “propaganda against the state”. The court accused one of the men, Ho Van Hai,  52, of “calling on people to take part in demonstrations” against Formosa. He was sentenced to four years in prison and two further years under house arrest.

In July 2017 a group of 17 NGOs called for the release of all detained bloggers and rights activists. Amnesty said at the time that Vietnam had the highest number of prisoners of conscience in Southeast  Asia.

There are thought to be more than 170 prisoners of conscience in Vietnam, serving sentences for “attempting to overthrow the communist government, conducting anti-state campaigns and abusing democratic freedom to infringe the state’s interests”. At least 500 people have signed an online petition demanding the release of the prisoners, which has been sent to Vietnam’s president and prime minister.