Dieu Cay on solitary confinement, hunger strikes, and his fight for press freedom

EDITOR’S NOTE: Held in solitary confinement and stripped of his human rights, Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Van Hai suffered greatly during his six and a half years in prison. The 63-year-old outspoken critic of the repressive Vietnamese government was granted early release from a 12-year sentence last year, thanks in part to campaigning by CPJ. Hai, who writes under the name Dieu Cay (Peasant’s Pipe), was awarded CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award in 2013. Here, he gives a grim account of life as a political prisoner and pledges to use his new-found freedom to continue his fight against injustice.

Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Van Hai, who was jailed for more than six years for his critical writing, is living in exile in the U.S. (AP/Richard Vogel)
Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Van Hai, who was jailed for more than six years for his critical writing, is living in exile in the U.S. (AP/Richard Vogel)

I remember the day clearly– October 21, 2014. As the plane took off, I looked back at my home country, where I had been held in bitter conditions in communist prisons, and where my friends are still seeking freedom for our country. I had just been released from jail and immediately forced into exile in the U.S.

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Even as I left, I knew I would continue the path I had been pursuing, to fight for freedom of speech and freedom of expression. But my steps from now on are no longer my own–they belong to all my fellow inmates. I must help them tell the world about human rights abuses in Vietnam, so that the people of my country can fully enjoy the human rights asserted in international covenants to which Vietnam is a signatory.

One of the first steps I took was to reactivate the Free Journalists Club, a group that friends and I had started in 2007. Many of our members–including Ta Phong Tan–are still in jail, some are free but live under constant police harassment. Reactivating the club was not just my wish, but also that of friends inside Vietnam, so that we could continue the struggle for freedom of speech and freedom of the press.


  • Nguyen Van Hai, known as Dieu Cay, started working as a journalist in the 1990s. Hai, pictured right, later started a blog covering politics, human rights, and other issues. (Family handout)

  • Hai, second left, helped co-found the Free Journalists Club of Vietnam, a group of bloggers covering under-reported and sensitive issues in the country. (Nguyen Tien Trung/Flickr)

  • Hai, pictured center during a public protest against China in December 2007, often blogged about Vietnam’s relations with China. (Nguyen Tien Trung/Flickr)

  • A family photo of Hai. In 2008 Hai, whose blog was read widely in Vietnam, is arrested and held without charge for five months. (Family handout)

  • A closed court sentences Hai, pictured here at a construction site, to two and a half years in prison in September 2008 for tax evasion. Rights groups including CPJ criticize the charge as a pretext to silence him. (Family handout)

  • An undated picture of Hai repairing equipment. In 2012, authorities bring anti-state charges against the blogger, increasing the prison term he was already serving to 12 years. (Family handout)

  • In this undated photo Hai is pictured smiling during a film shoot. During his incarceration, the blogger is held in solitary confinement and embarks on two hunger strikes which his family say left him barely recognizable. (Family handout)

  • As part of efforts to have Hai released, CPJ starts a petition calling on Vietnamese authorities to free the blogger. (Michael Nagle/Getty Images for CPJ)

  • Hai is greeted by well-wishers as he arrives in Los Angeles airport in October 2014, after being granted early release from prison in Vietnam. (AFP/Robyn Beck)

  • Hai gives his acceptance speech at CPJ’s International Press Freedom Awards in November 2014. When he was nominated as an awardee in 2013, Hai was still in prison. (Getty)

  • When Hai met Barack Obama in May, the blogger called on the president to help free other prisoners of conscience in Vietnam. (AP/Susan Walsh)

  • Hai, pictured with CPJ staff in New York, has relaunched the Free Journalists Club of Vietnam and pledges to continue his fight for freedom of the press. (CPJ)

Since being expelled from my country, I have met officials in the U.S. State Department and legislators including Senator Dick Durbin, as well as members of international non-governmental organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists, Amnesty International, and Freedom House. I have appeared internationally on radio and television to call for the release of my friends who are still in prison.

Most recently, on May 1, I met with President Obama. I told the president of my goal for freedom of the press in Vietnam, and called for his help in securing the release of all prisoners of conscience and the abolition of vague laws that Vietnam uses to deprive the Vietnamese of their freedom.

Many tactics have been used against dissidents. The most effective is stigmatization in state-owned media. I have been through 11 prisons and have seen the evils from within. We are held for long periods in solitary confinement, in cells with iron bars and metal roofs. During hot summer days it seems like those bars and roofs come close to melting from the heat. We were confined in small, narrow cells, 1.8m (6ft) wide and 2m long, with a 30cm long slot for air. Our toilets were inside the cells. To survive the stench, we used wet towels to cover our faces on hot days.

All the prisoner rights listed in Vietnam’s penal code, such as the right to educational and reading materials, to participate in cultural activities and sports, to vocational training, and to access information, are taken away by documents such as the Public Security Ministry’s Circular 37, laid down in 2011 to “categorize prisoners and detain them according to the categorizations.” Political prisoners, a separate “category,” are not entitled to the treatment legally accorded to common prisoners. And there is no reason for political prisoners to bother to protest. They cannot send complaints about conditions because their letters first go through review by the wardens. Submitting complaints results only in further abuse.

Prisoner rights denied

Circular 37 blatantly created a series of prisons within prisons, set aside for prisoners of conscience. It allows for us to be held in solitary confinement for months on end, without any contact. Many prisoners go on hunger strike to protest the conditions. I went on hunger strike twice: once for 28 days in 2011, while at prison B34, in Saigon [Ho Chi Minh City] and once for 33 days in 2013, while in the detention center of the Ministry of Public Security Number 6 in Thanh Chương, a rural district in the north central coastal region of Vietnam. I can assure you from personal experience that the most brutal modes of confinement exist in Vietnam.

Many other vaguely defined laws are used to take away the freedom of Vietnamese citizens. Among them are three particularly bad, overly broad articles in the penal code: Article 258, which jails people for “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state;” Articles 79 and 88 which, respectively, penalize anyone who carries “out activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration” or “conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” The government regularly uses these laws to repress dissidents or anyone who dares to speak up and fight for human rights. Because the laws are so sweeping, it is almost impossible to defend against them.

I speak for the Free Journalists Club of Vietnam when I call on the international community to condemn these abuses and urge Vietnam to repeal these vague laws and release all political prisoners, including bloggers and other journalists. The Vietnamese government signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1982. It must implement and guarantee those rights and not use its own laws to infringe upon the rights of its citizens, as it has done so far.

  • For more details on Vietnam, the fifth leading jailer of journalists in the world according to CPJ research, click here.

[Translated from Vietnamese by Huong Nguyen]