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Confronting the suffering in Vietnam's prisons

By Bob Dietz/CPJ Asia Program Coordinator on April 10, 2014 12:49 PM ET

Dinh Dang Dinh, a former Vietnamese schoolteacher and blogger, died on April 3 from cancer of the stomach. Near death, he had been released from his six-year prison sentence on March 21, and allowed to return home to die in Dak Nong province in Vietnam's Central Highlands. His crime, to which he had pled not guilty, had been to blog about corruption and environmental issues.  He was found guilty under Article 88-1 (c) of the Criminal Code for "conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam." 

Dinh's death leaves at least 17 other journalists, mostly bloggers, in jail. That number makes Vietnam the world's fifth worst jailer of journalists, behind China, Iran, Turkey, and Eritrea.

Among that number, and also in bad health, is Nguyen Van Hai, who was awarded, in absentia, CPJ's International Press Freedom Award in November 2013. Hai was also sentenced under Article 88-1(c) along with two other bloggers. Their trial took six hours. Nguyen was handed a sentence of 12 years in prison and five years house arrest. During his various stints in prison since 2008 he has been moved 11 times, often being kept in isolation, his family tells us. Despite Vietnam's membership on the U.N.'s Human Rights Council, Hai has been cut off from international visitors including human rights groups and members of the foreign diplomatic corps.

In November and December last year, more than 10,000 people signed CPJ's petition calling for Hai's release. CPJ has advocated for Hai's freedom at the United Nations, and met with members of the United States Congress and the Department of State about his case. Through Vietnam's embassy in Washington and its mission to the U.N. in New York, we are petitioning President Truong Tan Sang and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung for Nguyen Van Hai's release.

Hai has asked his family to press to allow him to get medical treatment, preferably abroad, although he says he does not want a negotiated release from his prison sentence, which he considers illegal and unjust. As he told his family, he wants to make "no dark deals" to be freed. He wants the charges against him dropped and to be declared innocent.

CPJ has worked closely with Hai's family, and they have periodically updated us. Here is their most recent account:

Our brother was able to visit the prison on March 17th, 2014. As you can see, the authorities are succeeding at harming and incapacitating him.

He has a herniated disc and migraines that are very intense and continual.  Since we cannot get a doctor in to the prison to see him, we asked a few doctors we know about his condition. They told us that they are the kind of migraines that will often cause people to commit suicide. His broken teeth might also get infected.

He is in such intense pain that he has no choice but to take drugs that he is being given by the prison authorities.  He has no idea what the drugs actually are as the labels have been scratched off.

In March he had fever for about two weeks, with no doctor's care, despite making continual requests. Blood spots have appeared on his left arm and they have not gone away.

He is jailed in an isolated area and cannot step out of his cell. He is like a caged animal. Food is being brought to him, and he cannot eat with other prisoners, as the authorities fear that information about him will get out of the prison.

In February he tried to place his monthly call home while he was very sick. He did not reach us, even though we were waiting. We believe the prison authorities dial the number before giving the phone to our father, and intentionally dial the wrong number to prevent him from speaking to us.

During the visits we have to talk through a plastic window with prison guards pressing the mute button at anytime during the conversation. For this reason we believe that he withheld much more information about his condition for fear of the visit being cut short.

He expressed his deep desire to meet someone from an international organization, and to be allowed to travel abroad temporarily for the medical care which he urgently needs.

We also visited Dinh Dang Dinh at his home before he died. At the time Teacher Dinh could not eat or drink due to stomach problems. He was just counting the days until he died. His family felt the government released him before his sentence was over for fear that he would die in prison.

He asked us to emphasize in the strongest possible terms that the treatment of political prisoners is even worse than that of animals. And because of the isolation and discrimination to suppress the spreading of information, these prisoners have no one to count on but their families. What will happen to those that do not have family or have family members that are unable to visit them?

Each story coming out of Vietnam is more shocking than the last.  Our family continues to fight the only way we know how, by sharing these stories with as many people as we can.

On April 7, Cu Huy Ha Vu, a prominent Vietnamese dissident whose father was an associate of the nation's founding president, Ho Chi Minh, arrived in Washington with his wife. A legal scholar and one of the ruling Communist Party's highest-profile critics, he was released from his 2011 sentence of seven years in prison and three years of house arrest on charges that included conducting propaganda against the state. Unfortunately, many of the bloggers in jail in Vietnam do not have the same prominence as Vu. Their origins are much humbler, their connections nowhere near as high. They remain in jail under intentionally abusive conditions, while their families outside face daily harassment from undercover police. Even if they are not seeking to leave their country, they deserve the same degree of international support.

Despite Vietnam's human rights abuses, the country enjoys relatively close ties to the U.S. Washington is brokering a sweeping 12 country Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement of which Vietnam will be an important member. The argument is that increased economic ties will cause Vietnam to step away from the abuse of its citizens. The TPP is a long way from being signed. The liberal democratic countries that are partner to the TPP should press for the release of Hai and others like him as part of their further negotiations. The sporadic release of a high-profile political prisoner like Vu does nothing to ease the pain of the bloggers and journalists being abused in prisons, or to free their families from the harassment they face on a daily basis from local police.


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