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HANOI (Reuters) - Courts in Vietnam handed prison sentences to two activists on Thursday, as the communist-ruled government widens its crackdown on dissent.

A court in Nghe An province sentenced 32-year-old Nguyen Viet Dung to seven years in prison for posting "anti-state propaganda" on his Facebook account, police said after a trial that lasted a few hours.

Despite sweeping economic and social reforms in Vietnam, the ruling Communist Party retains tight media censorship and does not tolerate criticism. It has been stepping up sentencing and arrests of activists and handing them longer jail terms.

Dung was charged with posting information on his Facebook account last year that distorted the policies of the party and the state and defamed state leaders, the police said, citing the indictment.

Dung, who was jailed for a year in 2015 for causing public disorder, will also face five years of house arrest after serving his latest prison term, police said.

"These trumped up charges, used to attack peaceful activists like Nguyen Viet Dung and many other dissidents before him, show just how easy it is for the government to harass, detain, prosecute and imprison any person," said Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director at New York-based Human Rights Watch.

He said Vietnam should heed calls from the United Nations and foreign diplomats demanding the immediate and unconditional release of Dung.

Separately, a court in the nearby province of Ha Tinh on Thursday jailed Tran Thi Xuan for nine years after she was convicted of "attempting to overthrow the people's administration", police in the province said.

Police said Xuan was a member of a group called the Brotherhood for Democracy, whose other members were jailed at other trials this month.

Lawyers for Dung and Xuan could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

FOCUS ON FACEBOOK

Their trials followed heavy sentences for at least seven other activists convicted of attempting to overthrow the people's administration.

This month, a Hanoi court sentenced human rights lawyer and activist Nguyen Van Dai to 15 years in prison on the grounds that he "aimed at overthrowing the people's administration".

Five other activists affiliated with Brotherhood Democracy were jailed for seven to 12 years.

On Tuesday, a court in the northern province of Thai Binh handed a 13-year prison sentence to another activist, Nguyen Van Tuc, accused of the same charges.

Vietnamese human rights activists and independent media groups wrote this week to Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook Inc's chief executive, questioning whether the social media platform was helping suppress dissent in Vietnam.

The letter, released on Tuesday by U.S.-based human rights group Viet Tan and signed by nearly 50 other groups, said Facebook's system of automatically pulling content if enough people complained could "silence human rights activists and citizen journalists in Vietnam".

Facebook said its community standard in Vietnam was in line with that elsewhere.

"There are also times when we may have to remove or restrict access to content because it violates a law in a particular country, even though it doesn't violate our community standards," a Facebook spokeswoman said in a statement.

(Reporting by Hanoi Newsroom; Editing by Darren Schuettler)

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Reuters