Vietnamese journalist and religious activist Dang Xuan Dieu was granted early release January 12 from a 13-year prison sentence on anti-state charges filed over his critical reporting. As with recent early releases of other jailed Vietnamese journalists, Dieu was forced to immediately board a plane and go into exile as a condition for his freedom.
Dieu, a reporter with Vietnam Redemptorist News, an online multimedia platform run by Catholic priests and religious activists out of a church in Ho Chi Minh City, said that he suffered extraordinary abuses during his over five years in prison. On one occasion, he said, prison authorities severely beat him for refusing to wear prison clothes emblazoned with the word “criminal.” On another, he was shackled in a cell with another prisoner who often physically assaulted him.
Dieu, who was frequently held in solitary confinement in a cell with no toilet or access to clean water, says he staged several hunger strikes to protest his and other prisoners’ mistreatment. The blogger was one of eight journalists jailed in direct relation for their work at the time of CPJ’s annual prison census.
Despite the abuse and deprivation he suffered, Dieu told CPJ he initially declined to leave prison for a life in exile in France. In an email interview with CPJ, Dieu spoke of his dire time in detention and his hopes for change in Vietnam.
What were the terms of your early release from prison?
When the EU and French government first offered me asylum I refused because I didn’t have enough information and I needed to consult with my family. After a while I was able to contact them and I learned that my family wanted me to leave. During that time I was confused because I was detained in solitary confinement. I felt that I should leave in order to take care of my health and to make my mother feel less worried.
Were you given the option of remaining in Vietnam?
I was forced into exile and was not given the choice of being released early in Vietnam.
Were you able to contact your family before your release?
The EU did make a request for me to meet with my family before I was scheduled to leave, but it wasn’t allowed until the last minute. By then it was physically impossible for them to travel to South Vietnam where I was imprisoned. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Dieu’s family lives in North Vietnam, a more than 24-hour train journey away.] The government then told me they would give me five minutes to talk to my family on the phone before my flight took off. But since no other prisoner was allowed to do the same thing, I refused to take up the offer.
How difficult was it for you to agree to go into exile?
It was an incredibly difficult decision to make because as a Vietnamese and an activist I really wanted to stay back in Vietnam to fight for what I believe in. To live in my own country and to be with my friends and supporters. But at the same time, I needed to take care of my health and to survive, which I am not sure I would have given the harsh treatment I received while being imprisoned.
There were reports from family members of your mistreatment in prison. Could you explain briefly what life was like in prison and the abuses you endured.
I was often beaten [by prison authorities] for not admitting my guilt. I also refused to wear prisoner clothing because I didn’t consider myself as a criminal. As a result, they often mistreated me by not allowing me to meet with any of my family during the [nearly] six years that I was in prison. Or they would allow other common criminals to be in the same prison cell, so that they would mistreat me by abusing me daily, both physically and mentally.
When I complained about this nothing would happen. As a result, I would often have to go on hunger strikes or fasting to force them to change their policy of mistreating me. I could count over 300 days that I had to resort to this, to protest against their mistreatment.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: The Ministry of Public Security, which is responsible for Vietnam’s police and prison system, did not immediately respond to CPJ’s request for comment.]
Do you think you were singled out for such abuse in prison and, if so, why?
Yes, of course I was singled out. Some other prisoners were also mistreated, but because they didn’t dare to speak up, their mistreatment was not the same as what I received.
The reason why I was singled out is simple: it’s because I refused to admit my guilt and refused to wear prisoner clothing and also because I often protested against mistreatment of other prisoners when they were beaten.
Do you think the abuse you suffered qualifies as torture? Will you be seeking medical treatment for trauma-related symptoms?
Yes, the abuse and the inhumane mistreatment that I received while in prison qualifies as torture. I said this even when I was in prison and in the numerous complaint letters that I had sent to prison authorities. But they didn’t do anything about it.
When I first arrived in France [receiving medical treatment] was the one thing that I really wanted to do because I feel that I am still not normal yet. Even now, I feel that I can’t remember a lot of things and can easily forget. So I hope that soon I will be able to seek medical treatment.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Vietnam became a signatory to the U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment on November 7, 2013.]
What is your situation now and what are your plans?
Since my arrival in Paris, I have been assisted by many organizations and individuals. In the future, I hope I will be able to continue to advocate for a freer and better Vietnam [and] that I will be a useful member of the Vietnamese community.
Do you have hope that the new U.S. government will push for press freedom improvements in Vietnam?
Yes, I am hopeful that the U.S. government will push for press freedom improvements in Vietnam. But I think that in the end it’s really up to our own people, not the U.S. or whatever nation, to press for more freedom.
The nearly 100 million Vietnamese must speak up and fight for our own rights: the right to speak up without fear, the right to assemble, the right to elect our own leaders, which to date have been denied by the illegitimate Communist Party of Vietnam.
In any event, I would like to thank you and the CPJ for giving me this opportunity to talk about my own situation and about Vietnam.
[Translated from the Vietnamese by Hoi Trinh]