Viet Activist’s Harassment Continues After Leaving Prison

Although Tran Minh Nhat, a former prisoner of conscience who was freed in August* after four years in prison, it appears authorities are not letting up on him, he says. In an email to Asia Sentinel, Nhat said that although he was able to spend Christmas and New Year with his family, he and other family members have been continually harassed by thugs believed to be hired by police who destroyed his property and threw rocks at his house.

Nhat was one of 14 Vietnamese Catholic and Protestant bloggers, writers and political activists who were convicted in 2011 in a sensational trial in which they were accused of plotting to overthrow the government via links to the California-based Viet Tan, the Vietnam Reform Party, which is banned in the country itself. The mass conviction was the largest such show trial to be prosecuted in recent years. The defendants apparently had attended a training course in Bangkok held by Viet Tan.

In the 1980s, Viet Tan led a resistance movement against the Vietnamese Communist government, but for the past few decades it has declared that it is committed to peaceful political reform, democracy and human rights. Nguyen Thi Hue, a defense lawyer, told The Associated Press at the time of the two-day trial in the city of Vinh, in Nghe An Province that three defendants had been sentenced to 13 years and that 11 others had received terms of three to eight years. One of the three-year terms was suspended.

Nhat apparently was released early. He told local media that he was repeatedly asked to sign a confession but refused to do. Local media said he and others staged a hunger strike in prison to demand better treatment for inmates.

Although Vietnam appears to be slowly letting up, there are still incidents in which local police hire thugs to seek to quell dissent with their fists, particularly in property confiscation cases. Tran Minh Nhat is such a case, as was Nguyen Van Dai, a human rights lawyer and three friends who were attacked by as many as 20 plainclothes policemen while they were returning home to Hanoi after leading a forum in Nghe An Province after facilitating a human rights forum in Nam Dan district, 300 km. south near the Laotian border.

David Brown, a former US diplomat who writes regularly for Asia Sentinel, wrote recently that “In their zeal to simplify, both the Vietnamese party-state’s ideological guardians and its most vocal foreign critics obscure the real story: that though law and ideology have been slow to change, de facto the citizens of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam have become, in the last couple of decades and particularly in the last few years, remarkably more free to manage their own lives.”

Vietnam, Brown wrote, is no longer an insular state. Some 44 percent of citizens are now online and the regime has given up trying to block access to Facebook.

Young, mainly urban Vietnamese keep pushing back against arbitrary restrictions. Some pointedly question abuse of police power, but many more, presumably with less forethought, just resist being herded. Also, voluntary groups are emerging as significant actors in public life. They address the needs of an increasingly complex society. By law, all organizations must be approved by the state and are subject to state supervision. Some professional organizations, like the Lawyers Association or the Chamber of Commerce, have achieved substantial autonomy within that framework.

Hardliners have continued to give ground, although they insist that the regime’s internal security agencies must deal harshly with citizens who speak up for political pluralism.

Nhat is one of those who is paying the price for that. He is a member of the Roman Catholic Church’s Redemptorist group, which has been active in movements for democracy and human rights. Redemptorist activists have become increasingly assertive in Vietnamese movements fighting for democracy and human rights.

Human Rights Watch describes the Redemptorists as being known for strongly backing bloggers and other peaceful religious and rights activists. They have become a growing voice among movements for democracy and human rights, particularly in Nghe An, Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh City. Religiously affiliated activists have been targeted for arrest and other forms of harassment and intimidation, including restrictions on movement, violent assaults on individuals, and the deployment of armed security forces around churches.

“I am a social and religious activist and a reporter for Vietnam Redemptorist News,” Nhat said in his email. “Our high-profile case reflected the human rights violations occurring in Vietnam.”

Although he was allowed to spend the Christmas and New Year holiday with his family, the visit was continually disrupted by the work of thugs hired by police, he said. ‘On Dec. 24, my older brother, Tran Khac Dat, informed me that more than 155 robusta coffee plants and 11 avocado trees were chopped on his property in Lam Ha. There were clear signs that these crops were chopped using an axe. Upon further inspection, it was observed that long irrigation pipes were tampered with which meant they require replacing.”

Two days later, he said, he discovered that pepper vines on his own property “were mysteriously and completely harvested. There was evidence of intrusion of property with parts of fencing surrounding the crops being cut through. As of today, more than 400 pepper vines were chemically poisoned and are currently dying.”

On Jan.1, another older brother, Tran Khac Duong, discovered that 382 of his pepper vines in his Lam Ha property were also chemically poisoned. Some further surrounding vines were also contaminated and destroyed by chemicals. Thirty of his pepper vines were also chopped down in the previous month.

On Jan. 2, he said, “I was investigating some sounds of intrusion onto our property when two rocks were thrown at my house at approximately 10:30pm. This caused my parents to be severely distraught and fearful of their safety during the night even within our own household. We have reported the incidents mentioned above to the police and have not received any response from them.”

*corrected Jan. 6, 2016