Torture of Political Prisoners Continues in Vietnam

Despite signing onto UN protocols prohibiting it, Vietnam persists in persecution

By: Kaylee Uland

There is strong evidence that Vietnam continues to torture some of the country’s growing population of political prisoners despite signing up in 2013 to the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT). 

The 88 Project, a US-based non-profit organization that monitors the Hanoi regime's efforts to repress free speech, presently counts some 249 political prisoners in Vietnam's jails. In a ground-breaking report issued on November 5, 88 Project staff provide details on torture treatment meted out to 19 prisoners during 2018-19 in flagrant violation of Vietnam's UNCAT commitments and the nation's own constitution.

According to Article 20 of Vietnam's Constitution, "Everyone is protected against torture, violence, coercion, corporal punishment or any form of treatment harming his or her body and health or offending honor and dignity.” However, the 88 Project's investigation reveals that prison officials employ an arsenal of tactics to induce prisoners charged with political crimes and not, to fold to their demands or admit guilt.

Several factors combine to reduce inhibitions to the use of torture of political prisoners specifically. The judicial system is not independent. Like all arms of Vietnam's government, it is tightly controlled by the ruling Communist Party (CPV).  Media are subject to state censorship and discouraged from investigating the circumstances of prisoners. There is a vast network of prisons run by the Ministry of Public Security, many in out-of-the-way places. According to the report. Verdicts against people accused of "crimes against the state" are largely pre-determined and delivered in abbreviated trials with little public access. (The recent trial of 29 villagers [pictured above] charged with responsibility for the death of three police officers during a violent police raid on their community is a notable example.)

The 32-page 88 Project report examines cases that during 2018-19 appeared to meet the definition of "torture" and/or "inhumane treatment" under international law.

A Snapshot of Prison Conditions

In 13 cases examined in The 88 Project report, political prisoners were denied legal representation. Two were tried without any notice being given to their families.

De facto, if not de jure, the authorities often cut off family visitation rights and support systems. At least 32 individuals in 2018 and 2019 were denied family visits or communications or were arbitrarily transferred to remote prisons, frustrating families' efforts to verify prisoners’ health and well-being. 

The report counts 18 instances of inadequate healthcare for political prisoners. Among these, retired teacher Dao Quang Thucdied in prison in late 2019, just two years into a 13-year sentence for "subversion." His official cause of death was a brain hemorrhage and lung infection.

Before his trial, Thuc (above, left) was reportedly tortured and beaten by his interrogators, necessitating hospitalization. He was also denied food and supplies sent by his family. Convicted and transferred to Prison No. 6 in Nghe An Province. Thuc participated in a hunger strike with other prisoners in 2019 to protest the removal of fans during a heat wave.

Prison authorities transferred Thuc to a hospital on December 3, 2019, as he showed signs of pain, but only notified his family the day after the transfer. There he died, although prior to imprisonment, he had no history of health issues. The prison denied the family’s request to have his body sent home for burial. 

Just as typical are cases of prison authorities refusing medical treatment to prisoners even when their injuries have been inflicted upon them in prison. Nguyen Ngoc Anh (below), for example, was brutally assaulted by a cellmate. Anh complained in writing of his cellmate's aggression. Detention center medical staff reported after a cursory examination that the pains Anh felt were symptoms of osteoarthritis. Though Anh’s pain was so severe that he was unable to eat and sleep, a senior detention official advised him to accept the reality of his situation and comply with regulations.

Although Vietnam asserts that prisoners are not subject to solitary confinement, The 88 Project found that isolation is a common punishment for political prisoners who speak about prison abuses, attempt to appeal their sentences, or refuse to sign admissions of guilt. That happened to Nguyen Ngoc Anh after he complained of being attacked by his cellmate. An advocate for prisoners' rights, Nguyen Van Hoa, was beaten and placed into isolation for four months after he refused to sign a prison report that contained many blank spaces.

Public security officers physically abused Huynh Truong Ca (below) when he refused to incriminate other activists during questioning in prison. Although Ca suffered from many health issues, prison authorities put him in a cell with aggressive prisoners who reportedly assaulted him.

Vietnam maintains that there are no “prisoners of conscience,” “political prisoners,” or “human rights defenders” in its prisons. The truth is that there is a distinct class of citizens detained under national security provisions. They routinely face state-sponsored discrimination, torture, and other inhumane treatment while in detention.  

The 88 Project report examines these representative examples of ill-treatment in the context of an intensified crackdown on dissent. Arrests and prosecution of ordinary citizens who merely express their opinions on online platforms have become common.

Forty percent of those arrested for expressing heterodox opinions in 2019 were Facebookers with no extensive history of activism. Almost half of these were charged with “conducting propaganda against the state.”

Tran Thi Tuyet Dieu (below), for example, was charged with “storing, disseminating anti-state materials,” a violation of Article 117 of the 2015 Criminal Code, for posting comment, photos, and video clips on social media in support of social issues and activists whom the government has labeled "reactionary." If convicted, she faces up to 20 years in prison.

Holding Vietnam Accountable

The 88 Project thinks it is high time that the international community goes beyond merely remonstrating with Vietnam. Though the Vietnamese government can quibble over terms, it appears that the Hanoi regime has done little or nothing to discourage prison personnel from systematic discrimination against prisoners based on their political opinions.

In 2018, UNCAT, and in 2019, a UN Universal Periodic Review, made specific recommendations on how Vietnam could bring its penal practices regarding political prisoners into compliance with its UNCAT obligations. In particular, Vietnam has been asked to accept visits by the UN's Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, and also to facilitate investigative visits by State members’ consular representatives.

Refusal to comply with these proposals can only be understood as the regime's acquiescence, in dealing with dissent, to the Ministry of Public Security's reliance on torture and inhumane treatment.

Kaylee Uland is Research Co-director at The88Project, a not-for-profit organization that advocates for prisoners of conscience in Vietnam

This article is among the stories we choose to make widely available. If you wish to get the full Asia Sentinel experience and access more exclusive content, please do subscribe to us.