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Vietnam urged to free prisoners of conscience over Covid-19

Rights groups say harsh conditions leave inmates vulnerable to coronavirus infection

UCA News reporter, Hanoi

UCA News reporter, Hanoi

Updated: April 06, 2020 09:16 AM GMT
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Vietnam urged to free prisoners of conscience over Covid-19

A man wearing a face mask sits on a scooter along a near-empty street in Hanoi on April 6 during Vietnam's nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the spread of Covid-19. (Photo: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP)

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Rights groups have asked communist Vietnam to release all prisoners of conscience as a way to save them from the deadly coronavirus pandemic.

On April 4, Vietnam-based Human Rights Defenders said the pandemic is spreading across Vietnam and the number of infections may surge if the government fails to apply proper measures or demand all citizens strictly obey preventive measures.

The group, which works to systematically report and document serious human rights violations in the country, said prisoners of conscience and people being held at prison camps and temporary detention centers are most vulnerable to Covid-19 infection.

It reported that the communist government keeps at least 240 prisoners of conscience in severe conditions. They are held in large numbers in stuffy cells, have low-quality food, lack proper medical services and many are placed in solitary confinement or beaten by prison guards and inmates for protesting inhumane treatment.

Families of prisoners of conscience have recently not been allowed to send food and money to them, so they live on inadequate food provided by prisons.

“In such conditions, prisoners of conscience are susceptible to Covid-19 because they cannot keep social distancing, while their health is too weak to withstand serious diseases,” Human Rights Defenders said in a statement.

The group, which trains activists in cybersecurity and journalism skills and offers them legal assistance and medical treatment, urged Vietnam “to free all prisoners of conscience, especially the elderly and sick. Releasing them and allowing them to return to their families will help them avoid being infected with the coronavirus and the government will reduce budgets on maintaining detention facilities.”

It said prisoners of conscience should be fed better while they are in prison so that they could withstand diseases.

On April 3, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) called on Vietnam to release Nguyen Bac Truyen, a religious prisoner of conscience. Truyen was sentenced to 11 years in jail in 2018 for “carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration.” 

“He should be home with his family, especially now that the coronavirus pandemic has increased the public health risk to prisoners and his health problems have escalated since his imprisonment,” said USCIRF commissioner Anurima Bhargava, who advocates for the Hoa Hao Buddhist as part of the commission’s Religious Prisoners of Conscience Project.

In March, a high court in Hanoi decided to postpone an appeal filed by Catholic activist Nguyen Nang Tinh, a music teacher who was sentenced to 11 years in jail in November for conducting campaigns against the communist government.

The high court said the appeal due on March 18 was postponed due to the spread of coronavirus.

On April 6, Vietnam’s health minister reported 241 confirmed Covid-19 cases but no deaths. A total of 88,551 coronavirus tests have been carried out and 70,400 people are quarantined or being monitored at hospitals and homes.

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