Fresh from his release from 18 years in jail, a former Vietnamese lawmaker said he had faced harsh treatment during his imprisonment, most of which was in solitary confinement, because he had maintained his innocence on charges of plotting to overthrow the communist government in Hanoi.
Le Van Tinh, a member of parliament under the former Republic of South Vietnam, was freed from An Phuoc Prison in southern Vietnam’s Binh Duong province on Sept. 27 after serving nearly 18 years of a 20-year sentence.
Speaking to RFA’s Vietnamese Service, the 74-year-old Tinh said his refusal to admit to the charges had led prison authorities to treat him more harshly than many of his fellow inmates during his incarceration.
“I told them outright that I didn’t need any leniency or any reduction of my sentence because, to qualify, a prisoner would need to plead guilty, as well as be seen to have a good prison record,” he said.
“I was in jail for 18 years—14 of which I was kept separate from the other prisoners. But I never pleaded guilty.”
Tinh was arrested in Cambodia in 1996 while on his way to attend a meeting of the exile pro-democracy People’s Action Party and deported to Vietnam, where he was handed the 20-year sentence for planning an insurgency, along with 19 others.
He had previously spent a decade in a reeducation camp in northern Vietnam’s Vinh Phuc province following the fall of Saigon in 1975.
Tinh said at the beginning of his solitary confinement he was very troubled after learning that his family members had to endure “many difficulties” in their lives because of his beliefs.
He said that prison officials also denied him many of the rights granted to other prisoners.
“They prohibited visits and gifts sent in to me from the outside,” he said.
When he was returned to general inmate population, Tinh said “my life became better” and he was able to meet dozens of other political prisoners, including members of outlawed political parties and dissident groups.
“In the beginning, it was hard to talk with one another because [the prison officials] did not let us converse very comfortably, but we protested, so they would open the cells. Then, we could sit together while having a cup of tea and talking,” he said.
“At first, [the officials] had strict rules, but later on they became more relaxed. Our requests for basic living conditions were gradually met.”
But despite the relaxed regulations over the course of his imprisonment, Tinh said that conditions in the jail were grim and access to medical care was limited.
“There was malnutrition and death,” he said.
Most recently, he remembered the case of environmental activist and blogger Dinh Dang Dinh who had spent two years of a six-year term in prison with him on anti-state charges, but his sentence was suspended and he was hospitalized in January after being diagnosed with stomach cancer.
Dinh was granted a pardon as part of a presidential amnesty in March and returned home to his family, only to die a month later at the age of 50.
“He was still young and tough—very admirable,” he said.
“When he fell sick, I wrote a petition [to the authorities]. That, plus some other factors, led to his sentence being suspended. He was returned home and died after that.”
Tinh, who also had been in poor health during his incarceration, said that only a combination of international pressure on Vietnam’s government and internal reforms under a new “humanitarian policy” had led to his release last month, though he is still serving probation.
‘We lag far behind’
He said that as a former legislator, he was surprised to find how developed Vietnam had become in the last 18 years.
“I have to recognize that there have been many changes and some progress,” he said.
But he said that Vietnam “still needs to do a lot more” both in terms of the economy and human rights, adding that development had not met the expectations he had as a lawmaker 40 years earlier.
“Compared to other countries in the region, we lag far behind,” he said.
“We need a better effort at improving the country because, currently, things are not very optimistic.”
Reported by An Nguyen for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.