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Vietnamese jailed blogger moved to distant province, wages hunger strike

Tran Huynh Duy Thuc was sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2010. (AP/Hoang Hai/Vietnam News Agency)

On May 7, my uncle, imprisoned Vietnamese blogger Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, was unexpectedly moved from the Xuyen Moc prison camp situated near our family in Ho Chi Minh City to another detention facility about 1,500 kilometers away known as Camp No. 6 in central Nghe An province. His family was not informed in advance about the transfer and we only learned about it from the relative of a fellow prisoner of conscience being held at the same prison.

The next day, we traveled to Xuyen Moc prison to inquire about the move with authorities, who only confirmed the information and gave us the new detention camp's address. They said his transfer was in accordance with an order issued on May 5 by the General Bureau of Criminal Judgments Enforcement and Justice Assistance (General Bureau 8) under the Ministry of Public Security. They would not, however, provide us with an explanation for the reason behind his sudden transfer.

We are very upset by this move. The geographical distance will now make it extremely difficult for my family to regularly visit my uncle. We are equally upset that we learned of the transfer by chance instead of being formally informed beforehand by authorities. This gives the impression that prison authorities do not respect us nor take into consideration the well-being of my uncle--an inmate under their management serving a 16-year prison sentence for his blogging activities.

Nor do they respect basic humanitarian principles provided for under Vietnamese law. In March, my uncle and other prisoners of conscience at Xuyen Moc prison submitted written complaints and went on a 13-day hunger strike to protest misconduct by prison guards, including arbitrary restrictions on their rights to receive and send documents with their family members and the frequent use of solitary confinement. Those complaints still have not been thoroughly addressed by authorities. In the absence of an official explanation for this transfer, it is easy to interpret the move as a retaliatory measure--however much we try not to think in this way.

There have been widespread rumors that the United States has offered my uncle political asylum and that the Vietnamese government would grant his freedom if he immediately leaves the country. But Thuc has consistently refused to exchange his freedom for a life in exile. He has said repeatedly that he will only accept unconditional freedom. We believe the government transferred him to a remote and severe prison in order to put added pressure on him.

Before U.S. President Barack Obama's official visit to Vietnam last month, there was speculation that he would try to meet with some political prisoners, including my uncle. After Thuc was transferred to Nghe An province, some human rights activists in Vietnam said they believed the move may have aimed to thwart a possible meeting during Obama's visit to Ho Chi Minh City. Authorities prevented activists and a high profile independent blogger from meeting with Obama. (CPJ raised Thuc's case in an open letter to Obama in advance of his Vietnam visit.)

On May 14, my family travelled to Nghe An to visit my uncle for the first time at the Camp No. 6 prison. On that day he told us that he would soon go on another hunger strike for an indefinite period, possibly until his death, and that he would continue to refuse freedom for political asylum. Although we did not want him to risk his life, we had to respect his decision. He said his hunger strike was meant as a protest calling for rule of law and a referendum for the Vietnamese people to choose their own political system and government.

My uncle started his hunger strike on May 24, the date marking his 7th year in detention. Our family members also abstained from food once every two days to show our support for him. We also documented on a Facebook page other people who have conducted short-time hunger strikes in solidarity with him.

On June 1, we visited him again to check on his health and to relay messages from many people, including several Vietnamese intellectuals and dissidents, who asked that he suspend his hunger strike for health reasons. During our visit, my uncle was assisted by two prison guards who walked by his side because he was too weak to stand. But he could still speak and was aware of his surroundings. He said that since the fourth day of his hunger strike that the prison had sent a doctor to check on him three times a day, but he refused to consume anything other than water.

He thanked his many supporters for their concerns and vowed he would stop his strike after 15 days, on June 7, which he thankfully did. While we were relieved he stopped his strike, we remain concerned about his condition and renew our call on the Vietnamese government to release him promptly and unconditionally. In the meantime, we request that prison authorities transfer him back to Xuyen Moc prison or another facility closer to where my uncle's family lives so that we may continue to visit with and check on him on a regular monthly basis.

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