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For prisoners of conscience, torture appears common

Amnesty report details harrowing conditions for religious activists

Abby Seiff, Phnom Penh

Abby Seiff, Phnom Penh

Updated: July 13, 2016 09:48 AM GMT
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For prisoners of conscience, torture appears common

Activists accused of plotting to overthrow the communist regime stand listening to verdicts at a People's Court in Vinh, in the north-central province of Nghe An in this Jan. 9, 2013 photo. An Amnesty International report released July 12 details abuses against prisoners of conscience by authorities in Vietnamese jails. (Photo by AFP)

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It took just two days in 2013 for the People’s Court of Nghe An to try Catholic activist Dang Xuan Dieu, find him guilty of trying to overthrow the government, and sentence him to 13 years in prison.

On Jan. 9 of that year, sentences were handed down for a group of 14 activists and bloggers. Dieu’s was the longest.

The Catholic activist was an outspoken government critic and writer for the Vietnam Redemptorist News—a perennial thorn in the government’s side.

Among the 14 tried, 12 were Redemptorists. Five were writers for a publication that, as the Committee to Protect Journalists put it, covered "the plight of the country's persecuted Catholic minority, land disputes between the government and grassroots communities, and other social issues."

The retribution for such acts has been harsh.

"In Prison No. 5, Thanh Hoa province, Dieu had variously been held in solitary confinement for prolonged periods, beaten by prison guards, shackled in a cell with a prisoner who beat him, forced to drink unclean water, denied water for washing, a blanket and mosquito net and lived in unsanitary conditions with no toilet in the cell."

That account was relayed to Amnesty International, who on July 12 released a massive case study detailing the torture that prisoners of conscience have faced in Vietnamese prisons. The report, "Prisoners within Prisons," draws on some 150 hours of interviews with 18 former detainees. Those interviewed included Catholics, Hoa Hao Buddhists, Khmer Krom and Montagnards — religious and ethnic minorities that have faced particular repression.

Solitary confinement and beatings were common, the prisoners recounted. Medical treatment for the seriously ill is withheld; contact with the outside world, cut off.  

"The police opened the door to take me to interrogation. As soon as I stepped out, one of them powerfully struck my head from behind, making me fall down. Then they stomped on my body. The police told me that I must fully confess everything, if not I would die without my wife ever knowing," a Montagnard told Amnesty.

The daily torture, which included electrocution, being beaten unconscious, and having a gun held to his head ended only after he confessed to a crime he didn’t commit.

Amnesty has urged the government to put an end to the use of torture, improve its enforcement of domestic and international laws, and punish culpable officials. But there is little to suggest the government will comply. Hanoi has previously defended its rights record and jailing and harassment of dissidents remains the norm. The government has made no official response to the report.

As for Dieu, he has little choice but to wait. Barring a pardon, he will not be released until 2024.

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