A Vietnamese democracy activist released in failing health after serving a six-year jail term said he had been held for long periods in isolation and repeatedly pressured by authorities to collaborate with them.
“They tried a lot to ‘buy’ me during the last six years,” dissident writer Nguyen Xuan Nghia, 64, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service on Friday following his release a day earlier after being imprisoned for “conducting anti-state propaganda.”
Nghia, who was freed from An Diem prison in the south-central coastal province of Quang Nam, said security officers had asked him many times to work for them “even though they knew I would never accept their offer, but still they tried.”
“Their purpose was to create division and suspicion among democracy activists,” Nghia said.
“But that was no use, because we are not an organization. We are only citizens who express our opinions.”
“I was held in special detention twice and was beaten once, so my health has deteriorated badly,” Nghia said, adding, “Now, I will have to get treatment for some diseases that I have, including a prostate tumor.”
Nghia was convicted and sentenced under Article 88 of Vietnam’s penal code on Oct. 9, 2009, and served his jail term in four prisons.
Held in isolation
He was also held twice in ‘special detention’—each time for a period of three months, he said.
“In Vietnam, all prisons are bad, but special detention is even worse. I was alone for three months, with no news or presents from my family.”
“When you share your cell with someone else, at least you can talk,” he said. “Hearing others’ laughter or footsteps would help us feel less stressed.”
Still refusing to “change his mind,” Nghia said he was transferred to a third jail—Prison No. 6 in northern Vietnam’s Nghe An province—about 300 kilometers (about 186 miles) from his home.
There, Nghia met popular imprisoned blogger Nguyen Van Hai, also called Dieu Cay, “who I respect a lot,” he said.
At Nghe An, “we worked together to demand rights for all prisoners,” he said.
On July 27, 2013, Hai ended a five-week-long hunger strike at Prison No. 6 after judicial authorities agreed to investigate his complaints over abuses in prison, including attempts by prison officials to force him to sign a document admitting guilt in the charges for which he was convicted.
Once, another prisoner punched Nhgia in the face, he said.
“Because you [political prisoners] gave interviews to RFA and the BBC, that was why I hit you—to see if you can do anything to me,” Nghia said he was told.
“I will never forget what he told me,” Nghia said.
Later, after being sent to An Diem prison, Nghia met imprisoned Catholic lawyer and blogger Le Quoc Quan with whom, together with two other prisoners, he also protested for prisoners’ “basic rights,” he said.
“We demanded the right to plant flowers and vegetables in a part of the prison in order to improve our living conditions,” he said.
Insisting on his innocence, Quan had refused to wear a prison uniform or exercise his right to make phone calls or meet with his family, Nghia said.
“[The authorities] finally had to give in, letting him wear his own clothes while still allowing him to meet with his family and make phone calls,” Nghia said, adding, “That had never happened before at An Diem.”
Paris-based press freedoms watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) labels Vietnam as an “Enemy of the Internet,” ranking the authoritarian state 174th out of 180 countries in its 2014 press freedom index.
“The Vietnamese government tolerates no online political debate,” RSF said in a report. “Bloggers and cyber-dissidents who dare to question the government’s legitimacy or domestic policies are ruthlessly suppressed.”
Approximately 150 to 200 activists and bloggers are serving prison time in Vietnam simply for exercising their basic rights, activist groups say.
Reported by An Nguyen for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.