Tran Huynh Duy Thuc (Tran Dong Chan)

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Vietnamese journalist Tran Hunyh Duy Thuc is serving a 16-year prison sentence, to be followed by five years’ house arrest, for "activities aimed at overthrowing the government.” He has frequently staged hunger strikes to protest poor prison conditions during his more than a decade behind bars.

Thuc, a blogger who wrote under the name Tran Dong Chan (Change We Need), was first arrested on charges of "promoting anti-Socialist, anti-government propaganda," according to news reports. On January 20, 2010, he was sentenced by the People’s Court of Ho Chi Minh City to 16 years in prison and five years’ house arrest for "activities aimed at overthrowing the government" under Article 79 of the penal code. 

The court’s indictment charged him with disseminating false information through a website and three blogs, according to news reports. He was convicted, along with two political activists, in part for writing a book, The Vietnam Path, which the court ruled was part of a plan to create political parties and overthrow the government, according to news reports.

Thuc maintained his innocence at the one-day trial and claimed he was tortured while in pretrial detention, without giving further details, according to Amnesty International. CPJ could not independently confirm the allegations of torture.

His personal blog, Tran Dong Chan, focused on local issues of inequality, social ills, and risks of a possible socioeconomic crisis. He also wrote about sensitive foreign affairs, including a March 2009 article called "Obama, China, and Vietnam," which analyzed the countries’ divergent approaches to civil liberties, human rights, and economic development.

On May 11, 2012, an appellate court upheld Thuc’s sentence in a closed trial, according to news reports. He was initially detained at southern Dong Nai province’s Xuan Loc Z30A prison.

In August 2012, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention adopted an opinion that Thuc’s imprisonment was arbitrary and requested that the government remedy the situation in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. He was transferred to Ba Ria-Vung Tau province’s Xuyen Moc prison after a riot among prisoners at Xuan Loc in the summer of 2013.

In 2015, Thuc declined offers of early release made by government officials on the condition that he immediately go into exile in the U.S., according to Defend the Defenders, a human rights organization which cited his father as the source of the information.

In March 2016, Thuc and other prisoners staged a 13-day hunger strike to protest alleged misconduct by prison guards, including the frequent use of solitary confinement and restrictions on receiving written materials from their families, according to Alex Truong,  a family member who wrote about Thuc’s situation in a blog post for CPJ that year.

In May 2016, Thuc was transferred from Xuan Loc prison camp to a detention facility about 930 miles (1,500 km) away known as Camp No. 6 in central Nghe An province, a move his family members viewed as a retaliatory measure for his protest, Truong wrote. Prison authorities did not give a reason for his move, which made it more difficult for his family to pay him regular prison visits, according to Truong.

On May 24, 2016, Thuc staged a 15-day hunger strike to call for a referendum on Vietnam’s political system, a fast that made him too weak to stand during a family prison visit on June 1. In August, prison authorities cut the electricity in his cell during extreme summer season temperatures as punishment for his refusal to produce imitation money used during funeral ceremonies as a form of prison labor.

On April 1, 2017, Thuc’s brother Tran Huynh Duy Tan and other family members visited Thuc in prison under the supervision of prison authorities, according to an April 4 post they published on Thuc’s Facebook page. In the post, Thuc’s family said that he suffers from an eye ailment caused by the lack of light in his prison cell. Prison authorities continued to cut electricity in his dark cell during daylight hours, the Facebook post said.

Authorities refused to deliver him battery-powered flashlights provided by his family on the grounds that electronic devices are banned for prisoners. Authorities also refused to deliver books, magazines, and letters, the Facebook post said.

In May 2018, Thuc announced he would appeal his sentence in light of changes to the national penal code that reduced the maximum penalty for the charge on which he was convicted to five years, according to The 88 Project, an advocacy group that monitors the status of Vietnamese political prisoners.

On September 12, 2018, activists launched a petition seeking a review of Thuc’s case based on the amended laws. The online petition, signed by 320 civil groups and individuals, was sent to the National Assembly, the prime minister, state agencies, and foreign diplomats, news reports said.

Since 2018, Thuc has staged numerous hunger strikes to protest increased restrictions in prison, to oppose pressure from government authorities to accept an exile-for-freedom deal that he rejected, protest his solitary confinement, and to demand that his 16-year sentence be reduced to five years in accordance with the amended law, according to multiple news reports and The 88 Project.

In 2021, his family members were quoted as saying that he had starved himself to the point that he could no longer walk or sit up. 

He ended that strike, which lasted from February 20 to July 8, 2021, after prison authorities informed him that they had written to the Ministry of Public Security about his health and asked the ministry to send his petition for a reduced sentence to the Supreme Court, The 88 Project reported

On May 7, 2022, Thuc’s sister and eldest daughter visited him in prison in Nghe An province for about an hour, a U.S. Congress-funded Radio Free Asia report said, quoting his brother Tan. His brother told RFA that Thuc’s health had improved since his mid-2021 hunger strike and that he frequently writes letters to his family that comment on current affairs.  

In late August 2023, knife-wielding men wearing prison uniforms allegedly entered Thuc’s cell and threatened him and his Block A, Camp 1 cellmates, according to an August 31 post on Thuc’s Facebook page maintained by his family and The 88 Project reporting

In September, Thuc and his cellmates stopped eating prison food to protest for fairer food rationing for the prison’s Block A, and he asked fellow inmates to purchase food for him at the prison’s canteen, according to The 88 Project reports. In response, prison authorities stopped giving Thuc hot water to prepare purchased instant noodles, the reports said. 

Thuc’s family said in a Facebook post after an October 3 prison visit that his health had declined and that he looked gaunt and fatigued compared to a visit the previous month. The post said prison authorities refused to let Thuc meet his lawyer, Ngo Ngoc Trai, who accompanied his family to the prison. 

Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security, which oversees the country’s prison system, did not respond to CPJ’s emailed request in late 2023 for comment about Thuc’s health and his allegations of mistreatment.