Three months after her release from prison, Vietnamese authorities have prevented prominent labor activist Do Thi Minh Hanh from leaving the country to visit her ailing mother in Austria.
On Wednesday, security officials confiscated Hanh’s passport and prevented her from leaving the Hanoi airport to go to Austria, where her mother is undergoing medical treatment for an illness.
“The immigration authorities are keeping me here [and] not letting me out,” Hanh told RFA’s Vietnamese Service by telephone in a brief interview. “They are not letting me leave Vietnam.”
She said the order to stop her from leaving the country came from police in her home province of Lam Dong in the Central Highlands.
Hanh had received a 46-day visa from the Austrian embassy “for humanitarian reasons” to visit her ill mother, sources said.
“The Lam Dong Province police requested that the immigration department not let me leave Vietnam,” she said, adding that no reason was given for the action.
Hanh’s mother, Tran Thi Ngoc Minh, was hospitalized on July 25, about a month after Hanh was released after serving four years of a seven-year sentence for leafleting in support of footwear workers striking for better working conditions and higher wages.
Minh has had three surgeries and been confined to an Austrian hospital for nearly a month. Although she has been released, she is continuing to undergo treatment due to further health complications.
Former political prisoner Truong Minh Duc, who accompanied Hanh to the airport, told RFA that after authorities detained her at the airport, they initially allowed Hanh to make phone calls, but later transferred her to an interrogation room where he lost contact with her.
“This is her right to travel with a legal visa, but the government of Vietnam always does this, creating difficulties for domestic activists,” he said. “This is not the first time.”
Duc said that Hanh had met with representatives from the Norwegian, German, Austrian, and U.S. embassies in Hanoi to inform them about her plans to visit her mother.
Vietnamese bloggers have criticized the authorities for the action against Hanh but did not appear surprised.
Nguyen Lan Thang, a blogger activist who has been banned from leaving the country, told RFA that the travel ban on Hanh and the confiscation of her passport were common occurrences among Vietnamese activists.
“I think all the bans, the taking of [people] into custody, and the confiscation of passports are aimed at cracking down on activities that the government does not like,” he said.
Thang also said that the right to free travel is a key ingredient of human rights.
Despite efforts of different civil societies to promote human rights, such as the right to free travel and freedom of information, “the change in perception of people is very slow,” Thang said.
“This can’t happen overnight because of lagging human rights in Vietnam,” he said.
Currently about 40 Vietnamese activists have been banned from leaving the country, according to sources.
Hanh and two other activists were arrested in June 2010 for distributing leaflets to incite workers at the My Phong footwear company in Tra Vinh province in south Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region to seek better pay and work conditions.
On Oct. 27 that same year, she was sentenced to seven years in prison.
Hanh served four years of her sentence during which she was repeatedly beaten by prison guards and other inmates and became ill, sources said.
She was released in June this year after her mother traveled to Europe and the U.S. in January to lobby for her release.
After she was freed, Hanh went to Tra Vinh province to request that her confiscated passport be returned.
She then sought and received a visa from the Austrian embassy to visit her mother.
Reported by Tuong An and An Nguyen of RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.