By Dung Phan
A new report released by Amnesty International offers a rare glimpse into the physical torture and severe treatment of prisoners of conscience in Vietnam.
“Prisons within Prisons: Torture and ill-treatment of prisoners of conscience in Vietnam“, confirms that hell is a reality within prisons and detention centres in Vietnam.
Chau Hen is a Khmer Krom land rights activist. During his four-month period of incommunicado detention he was beaten unconscious many times and injected with unknown drugs that caused memory loss and left him unable to think and speak clearly. Once he became severely ill due to a high fever prison officials didn’t send him to the prison medical clinic until he was too weak to walk and had lost a lot of weight.
“When I came to, the prison doctor asked me what was wrong with me. I opened my mouth to respond, but was unable to speak. When I couldn’t answer, the doctor hit me in the mouth with a round piece of hard rubber. He knocked my teeth out, including a wisdom tooth. I lost so much blood I passed out again,” he explained.
Lu, an ethnic minority Montagnard from Dak Lak province in the Central Highlands, was subjected to near daily torture sessions for four months. He was regularly beaten by police and when he asked for food he was given a bowl of rice which was left uneaten by two dogs chained outside his prison cell.
Mai Thi Dung, another former prisoner featured in the report, said 22 of her fellow prisoners died due to lack of medical treatment and most of them, “were treated worse than dogs”.
By June 2016, Amnesty reports there are at least 86 prisoners of conscience in Vietnam and cases like Chau Hen and Lu are often subjected to many other acts of torture (beatings, electric shocks, abuse with fire), enforced disappearances, a lengthy period of solitary confinement and incommunicado detention. The report was based on interviews with 18 former detainees released in the past five years.
In May, Vietnam decided to free Nguyen Van Ly, a Catholic priest and one of its longest-serving prisoners of conscience, just a few days before US President Barack Obama’s visit. The reason behind the move was thought to be that the lifting of an arms embargo on the country was dependent on active human rights processes.
“They told Ly that this is a pardon from the state’s president, but Ly told them that this is not a pardon but a gift to the US before the US president visits Vietnam”, Catholic Priest Pham Vam Loi told Radio Free Asia’s Vietnamese Service.
In 2014, Cu Huy Ha Vu, one of Vietnam’s most prominent prisoners of conscience, who twice sued a former Prime Minister for unlawful conduct, wrote, “The Vietnamese government treats prisoners of conscience as commodities to barter with the United States and other Western countries for security and trade benefits as well as foreign aid. Vietnam has stocked a reserve of prisoners of conscience for future bargaining.” In Cu’s words, the prisoner releases are used as, “a diplomatic approach”.
Hope from the US?
These diplomatic exchanges are not leading to any reform or meaningful actions to improve human rights.
“Just the fact that there are so many political prisoners in jails right now points to the fact that they promise all sorts of things when they want something, and they don’t follow through,” said California Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez, who has worked to relieve the ongoing human rights crisis in Vietnam for the past 19 years. She said lifting the embargo would be, “giving a free pass to a government that continually harasses, detains and imprisons its citizens.”
Although the US Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski argued that, “Under the spotlight of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations, Vietnam has released prisoners of conscience, bringing the total number down to around 110 from over 160 two years ago,” the question is how many were actually released pursuant to reform steps. Some released detainees simply completed their sentences and are now out on probation.
John Coughlan, Amnesty International’s Vietnam researcher, explains the government is “quite sophisticated in how it operates, and generally tends to avoid international criticism for its human rights record”.
Even as the number of prisoners of conscience increases, the government now has new methods. Violence or harassment by plainclothes police thugs is more commonplace, according to Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. He believes activists and dissidents in Vietnam are frequently attacked by, “thugs that most observers believe are either government officials out of uniform or groups mobilised by the government.”
Still, the state-controlled media and lack of freedom of expression has hindered any efforts from domestic activists, bloggers and journalists in addressing human rights issues in Vietnam. And such reports by Amnesty International are nowhere to be found in Vietnamese media platforms. They are as invisible as the prisoners themselves.