Silenced for defending the oppressed – standing up for Vietnam’s prisoners of conscience

The Communist Party of Vietnam routinely violates the civil and political rights of its people. The right to freedom of expression, opinion and speech is tightly restricted and suppressed, with little or no space for the voice of civil society. The Vietnamese government regularly imprisons individuals for human rights work including exposing corruption, offering legal assistance, organising peaceful protests, and using social media to advocate on social issues and speak out against social injustices.

Many human rights defenders risk their own safety to stand up for victims of human rights violations, including the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB). Those who speak out frequently face harassment, intimidation, intrusive monitoring and even imprisonment by the Vietnamese government.

Six such activists are Nguyen Van Dai, Le Thu Ha, Nguyen Trung Ton, Nguyen Bac Truyen, Pham Van Troi and Truong Minh Duc. On 5 April 2018, they stood trial under accusations of ‘carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the government’, receiving prison sentences of between seven and 15 years.

On 7 June 2018, pro-democracy activist Nguyen Van Dai and his assistant Le Thu Ha were released into exile. Five years on, the other four remain in prison.

Silenced for defending the oppressed

Nguyen Trung Ton is a Protestant pastor and human rights defender who courageously raised his voice against social injustices and advocated for the right to FoRB in Vietnam.

Prior to his arrest, Pastor Ton experienced first-hand the abuse and harassment directed at many religious minority individuals and communities in Vietnam. In February 2017, Ton was left with serious injuries after being kidnapped by state agents, stripped naked, tied, beaten, and abandoned in a remote mountainous location in the middle of the night. Members of Pastor Ton’s family and church were also repeatedly attacked by policemen and local authorities.

Hoa Hao Buddhist Nguyen Bac Truyen is a human rights activist and legal expert who has provided pro bono legal assistance to families of political prisoners, victims of land grabs, and persecuted religious communities. He worked tirelessly to defend the rights of the most vulnerable people in Vietnam.

On 30 July 2017, Truyen was abducted by the Vietnamese police in Ho Chi Minh City. He was held in incommunicado arbitrary detention in Hanoi for nine months until his trial. For six of those months, Truyen was prevented from seeing his wife, and he was only granted access to his lawyers two weeks before the trial began.

These lengthy pre-trial detentions are common in Vietnam, with many prisoners of conscience held for months or even years before being tried, without access to lawyers or loved ones.  When trials do eventually take place, they are often brief and unfair, lacking proper representation; held behind closed doors; and without an independent and impartial decision maker.

Because of their work speaking out for human rights, Ton and Truyen were sentenced to 12 and 11 years in prison respectively. Pham Van Troi and Truong Minh Duc, two members of the pro-democracy human rights group the Brotherhood for Democracy, also stood trial in April 2018, and were sentenced to seven and 12 years respectively.

In late April 2018, Ton, Truyen, Troi and Duc appealed their sentences, but were denied on 4 June 2018.

Updates on the treatment of Ton and Truyen during their time in prison are deeply troubling. In July 2018, authorities transferred Ton to Dak Trung prison camp in Dak Lak province. The prison is 1,000km from his home, making it difficult for his wife to visit him. Ton is not alone in this treatment: the Vietnamese authorities have been known to deliberately move a number of prisoners of conscience further away from their families as an additional form of punishment.

In April 2019, Ton’s wife Nguyen Thi Lanh reported that detention officers refused Ton medical treatment despite serious ongoing health problems. Two months later, Lanh was told by the authorities not to speak to international media regarding her husband’s treatment in prison, and was summoned by the police in Thanh Hoa for questioning. 

The treatment of Truyen and his wife Kim Phuong has been equally dire. Serious concerns have been raised for Truyen’s safety and wellbeing on multiple occasions during his detention. In 2019, Truyen joined other prisoners of conscience in a hunger strike to protest the treatment of fellow prisoner Nguyen Van Hoa, a young Catholic activist. Even from confinement, Truyen continues to speak and act in defence of the rights of others.

Since October 2022, Truyen has been held in Gia Trung prison, where he is being made to work despite his sentence not dictating forced labour. Truyen is reportedly suffering medical complications, including indications of heart valve disease, gout, and diabetes, but the prison has refused him medical treatment.

Sadly, these accounts of dire conditions and severe maltreatment in Vietnam’s prisons are widespread. According to the 88 Project database, there are currently 209 activists in prison in Vietnam, and in just the past two months, reports have been shared of prisoners of conscience being prevented from receiving medical treatment, denied access to clean water, and being subjected to mental and physical violence from fellow prisoners without any attempts at prevention by prison guards or repercussions for perpetrators.

Despite numerous governmental and non-governmental organisations calling for their release, Ton and Truyen continue to have their freedom withheld.

However, the release of Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thu Ha into exile after extensive advocacy on their cases by a number of international organisations, including CSW, is a source of hope that one day, Ton and Truyen, and the many other individuals who are detained in Vietnam’s prisons simply for choosing to speak out on behalf of others, will one day be freed.

By CSW’s East Asia Team

Featured Image: Nguyen Bac Truyen (C), 39, is escorted by security personnel as he arrives at a court in Ho Chi Minh city May 10, 2007. REUTERSKham

One thought on “Silenced for defending the oppressed – standing up for Vietnam’s prisoners of conscience

  1. What is communist government in Vietnam afraid of in Christians? Christians are usually PEACEFUL, law abiding citizens living a life being helpful to others so why not enact freedom of religion & belief in Vietnam? Become ethical. Trying to control people’s beliefs then putting them in jail is only expensive for government while they sh0uod be w/families in general society earning a living to support families & the government by taxes. Get out of old thinking. Francis Lavigne, Fort St. John, B.C., Canada

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