When Vietnamese blogger Tran Thi Nga was arrested by authorities on January 21, 2017, she did not know at the time it would likely be the last time she would ever be in her home in northern Ha Nam province.
Nga, who covered issues ranging from human rights abuses to police brutality to environmental conflicts on her blog “Thuy Nga” and two YouTube channels, was recently given early release after serving nearly three years of a nine-year sentence on anti-state charges related to her journalism.
The cruel catch: ruling Communist Party authorities required her to leave Vietnam immediately for a life in exile in the U.S., where she now lives with her husband and two children.
Her release in January is the latest in a rising and troubling trend of U.S. State Department-negotiated freedom-for-exile releases in Vietnam, where jailed journalists and other political prisoners are forced to leave their homes behind, often after suffering extreme abuse in prison, where some are violently coerced into admitting to anti-state crimes.
As well as being exiled from her home country, Nga lost access to her social media accounts. Authorities shut down her main YouTube account at the time of her arrest and prosecutors used videos posted to the channel as evidence to convict her of anti-state crimes. She also lost access to her Thuy Nga Facebook account, which had over 20,000 followers at the time of her arrest, Nga said. She added that she asked Facebook to restore access to the page, but has not yet received a reply.
In an email interview with CPJ, Nga elaborated on adjusting to life in Atlanta, Georgia, and the abuse she suffered in jail in retaliation for her journalism.
[This blog has been edited for length and clarity]
Your early release from prison was predicated on the condition that you immediately leave Vietnam for exile in the U.S. What are your thoughts on exile-for-freedom?
It was painful for me. The Vietnamese government is cruel. They locked me up in jail, beat me, tortured me. All because I used Facebook, YouTube, and my blog to tell the truth about human rights, to protect the environment and help people in distress.
Because of this, the Vietnamese government charged me with crimes against the state and handed me a nine-year sentence. In Vietnam there are many political prisoners. The government uses political prisoners as a trade item with Western governments by forcing us into exile. That is a crime.
How hard a decision was it for you to leave your homeland?
For the future of my children and to protect my health and my life, I must choose to live in exile. Yes, that was a very difficult decision for me.
Do you think international advocacy group pressure like CPJ’s influenced the government’s decision?
International human rights defenders, civil society organizations and groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists all put advocacy pressure on the Vietnamese government. That is why they released me and forced me into exile.
How are you and your family adjusting to life in the U.S. and what are your plans?
A good future always lies ahead and since my family came to America we have received a lot of help from the Vietnamese community in the U.S. So getting along with our new life is easier.
But I will still spend the first six months to restore my mental health, learn new knowledge and take care of my children. “Only when you have health, spirit and knowledge then you can do what you want.” That’s my life philosophy.
Can you elaborate on your time in prison?
I endured so much. They tortured me so that I would plead guilty to the crimes of which they accused me, but I wouldn’t do it. Police used guns to intimidate me, they used batons to beat me.
They forcibly made me take off my clothes and then used violence, which they recorded on camcorders. They used violence to force me to put my fingerprints on to documents they claimed was evidence that I admitted the accusations against me.
They didn’t let me see my children. They isolated me in prison and locked me in solitary confinement. They didn’t allow me to buy food. They ordered other inmates to beat me and even threatened to kill me because I would not plead guilty to their accusations.
Do you think that the abuse legally constituted torture?
Yes, it was torture.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: The Ministry of Public Security, which is responsible for Vietnam’s police and prison system, did not respond to CPJ’s emailed request for comment on the torture allegations in this interview]
Did authorities threaten or harass your family while you were in detention?
Yes, it happened continuously. Before I was arrested by the police until my family and I came to America.
Do you think you were singled out for abuse and retaliation in prison because of your reporting as an independent blogger?
I think certainly. Vietnam’s Communist Party government holds many independent journalists in jail. And all of them are mistreated in prison.
Since November 2013, Vietnam has been a signatory to the United Nations Convention Against Torture. Do you think the U.N. should sanction Vietnam for breaking this commitment in its prison system?
Vietnam may have signed the United Nations Convention Against Torture, but the reality is that communist authorities continue to use violence and to torture both the body and spirit of prisoners, including dissidents and people who fight for democracy and human rights.
They are frequently beaten by communist authorities and deprived of their fundamental freedoms.
The U.S. is drawing closer to Vietnam as a diplomatic, economic and security ally. What is your message to the administration of President Donald Trump about strengthening engagement without requiring Vietnam to uphold basic rights and liberties, including press freedom?
I think the U.S. government should take strong measures requiring the Vietnamese government to comply with the international conventions it has signed, including the Convention Against Torture, but does not uphold.
The Vietnamese people are being deprived of their most basic human rights, including freedom of expression and press freedom. That should be a factor in how the U.S. deals with Vietnam.
[Reporting from Bangkok]