Exiled dissident Dang Xuan Dieu recounts the horror of his imprisonment in Vietnam to Mong Palatino. 

I first learned about the case of Vietnamese activist Dang Xuan Dieu in 2014. His friends and supporters were appealing for global support after they learned that Dieu was being mistreated in prison. This was despite a 2013 ruling from the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention stating that Dieu’s arrest in 2011 violated international laws.

So why was he arrested by the Vietnam government? Dieu is an engineer, contributing citizen journalist for the Vietnam Redemptorist News, and member of Viet Tan which is banned in Vietnam.

He was charged for violating Article 79 of the country’s Penal Code which refers to an attempt to overthrow the government. This law is notorious because it is often used by authorities to silence dissenters.

Dieu is an advocate of peaceful activism to effect change in Vietnam. However, he is considered a national security threat by the Vietnam government, and sentenced to 13 years in prison. But this didn’t stop human rights groups, law scholars and even the European Union from actively campaigning for his release. The international pressure eventually succeeded in persuading the Vietnam government to set him free last January, and Dieu was immediately exiled to France.

I managed to have an e-mail interview with Dieu who shared his prison ordeal and his message to the international community.

[Mong Palatino] Can you briefly narrate the circumstances of your arrest and the case filed against you by the Vietnamese government?

[Dang Dieu] I was detained by Tan Son Nhat Airport security in Saigon and handed over to plainclothes police as I alighted my plane from Thailand on 30 July, 2011. They arrested me without any reason or formal charges nor was there any documentation. They confiscated my possessions including my laptop, mobile phone, money and camera before stripping me to conduct a body examination. On 11 August, 2011 I was formally charged with “conducting activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration.”

After 17 months of investigation, which concluded  I was a member of pro-democracy group Viet Tan and participated in a “non-violent struggle” training, I was sentenced to 13 years prison and five years house arrest by Vietnamese authorities on 9 January, 2013.

[MP] Why do you think you received the harshest prison sentence of 13 years?

[DD] I was clearly told by security police before my trial: “If you don’t accept the charges, you will definitely be sentenced to 15 years. If you accept the charges, you would only be sentenced to three to four years, up to you.” Even if my case was fabricated, the sentence was based on me and my confession. So if I “confessed” what would they get in return? In a democratic society people exercising their political rights by forming or participating in a political party is normal. In Vietnam, the Communist Party is afraid of people choosing to participate in Viet Tan or any other political group and so has persecuted me and many others. For me, a 13-year prison sentence isn’t an unexpected ordeal.

[MP] How did you endure the brutal prison conditions for six years?

[DD] Some of the things I endured over the past six years in prison were truly horrific. I currently face issues with my memory, not remembering details and I needed to forget some of the experiences in order to survive  prison and be able to hold myself up before I was released.

It was only two days after my arrest that I was placed in a small cell with thugs (one who was sentenced to life for murdering two people) who tortured, extorted money, and forced me to be a slave. They shouted obscenities, terrorised and physically beat me three times; they defamed my family, town and religion for six ongoing months because I chose not to accept the charges and I chose not to wear the prison uniform forced upon me. I pleaded many times to prison authorities to move me to another cell but to no avail. The people in my cell slandered me, making up stories that I was against the prison guards so I was disciplined three times, shackled in a dark, smelly cell with no water to use for 10 days.

The continuous injustices led me and other prisoners to hold multiple hunger strikes, totalling more than 100 days and starving ourselves (only one meal a day) for more than 300 straight days. The first time I held a hunger strike, prison guards didn’t give me water for the first three days. The other times I striked, they prevented me from buying utensils and food for 12 months until intervention from the EU delegation. I have to say, I endured a prison within a prison within a prison.

[MP] What is the situation of other detained democracy activists?

[DD] There have been activists who were released and subsequently detained including Nguyen Van Oai, Le Thanh Tung, Tran Anh Kim and Can Thi Theu.

In relation to the case of 14 Catholic youth in which I was a part of, Ho Duc Hoa and Nguyen Dang Minh Man remain imprisoned, sentenced up to 13 years and eight years respectively in poor prison conditions. There are dozens of elderly activists over 60-years-old who have been sentenced to lengthy terms in extreme prison conditions.

Innocent activists such as Truong Minh Tam and Nguyen Van Oai have been defamed and accused of “deliberate infliction of injury”, “resisting persons on duty”, and “fraudulent appropriation of property.”

[MP] What specific political reforms are urgently needed to protect the rights of bloggers and ordinary citizens?

[DD] Vietnamese authorities have used sweeping national security provisions to silence critics including Articles 79, 88 and 258 of the Vietnamese Penal Code, which are easily interpreted and applied to charge me and many other political prisoners. These articles need to be removed and Vietnamese authorities must also immediately and unconditionally release all democracy, human rights and land rights activists.

There must be a fundamental reform of the legal system that prevents any form of political organisation outside the Vietnamese Communist Party. It is through this that the protection of human rights can be realised, including the right to form organisations, engage in political advocacy, impart information, and worship freely.

[MP] What is your message to the international community?

[DD] It is heartbreaking to hear about the number of people who have been publicly beaten, humiliated and unjustly detained over the past few years.

I know that the international community’s advocacy work has been important for Vietnamese and in particular, peaceful activists. Releasing prisoners of conscience ahead of schedule is a testament to this. However, the number has been small and many have been exiled overseas. When people are released, the government will continue to arrest others.

I hope the international community will continue to raise their voice, to monitor and to ensure the Vietnam government’s proper treatment of people. Strong international pressure will protect and force Vietnamese authorities to release political prisoners.

I would also like to deeply thank the international human rights organisations, governments and people around the world for their ongoing support and for speaking up about my case and others over the past six years. It is through this that we are able to bring peaceful change in my homeland and my fellow countrymen will have the right to freedom of belief, speech and action and ultimately, choice.

Mong Palatino is a Filipino activist, blogger and former legislator. He is the Southeast Asia editor of Global Voices.

Translated from Vietnamese by Don Le.