Held since January 2017 and now serving a seven-year prison sentence, Nguyen Van Hoa began his hunger strike on 22 February and wrote a letter to district and provincial authorities and to the Supreme Procuratorate’s office in Hanoi listing all the cases of mistreatment to which he has been subjected. He says he will continue the hunger strike if all those responsible for this mistreatment are not investigated in accordance with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam’s laws and constitution.
“It is absolutely unacceptable that a journalist who is in prison just for trying to inform his fellow citizens has been reduced to depriving himself of food in order to ensure respect for his most basic rights, including the right to physical integrity,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“By flouting its own legislation, Vietnam is yet again demonstrating its contempt for press freedom and the rule of law. We call on the United Nations special rapporteur on torture to consider the possible courses of action for obtaining an end to these human rights violations.”
Hoa, who reported for the US broadcaster Radio Free Asia, was arrested on 11 January 2017 for filming protests, and spent the next nine days in police custody, during which he was hung by the hands and beaten by eight policemen. They also subjected him to the same form of water torture that US soldiers used on their Viet Cong prisoners during the Vietnam War.
Eight months after receiving his seven-year sentence in November 2017, Hoa was brought to testify in court against another blogger, Le Dinh Luong, in August 2018. When he refused to cooperate, he was taken to an isolated room and was again badly beaten by several police officers.
Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, a blogger who used the blog name of Me Nam (Mother Mushroom), also went on hunger strike in prison in July 2018 in protest against the inhuman conditions to which she was being subjected. She ended up being released in October on condition that she left the country.
What follows are just a few other examples of the appalling conditions inflicted on the 29 dissident citizen-journalists currently detained in Vietnam, in which the authorities seem to stop at nothing in order to maintain the pressure on them.
“My husband was transferred to the other end of the country without my being informed,” RSF was told by Nguyen Thi Kim Thanh, the wife of Truong Minh Duc, a journalist sentenced to 12 years in prison in April 2018. “Now I have to travel around 2,000 km in order to visit him, although he has high blood pressure and heart problems. Our lives have become a hell.”
Nguyen Dang Minh Man, a blogger and photojournalist held since 2011, has received the same treatment. Her family, who live in Tra Vinh, a city in the far south, must travel the length of Vietnam to visit her in prison in Thanh Hoa, in the north. She went on hunger strike again in March 2017 in protest against the latest violence inflicted on her. In November 2014, she weighed only 35 kg after a previous series of hunger strikes that year.
“Destroy me mentally”
Nguyen Van Dai, a blogger who was given a 15-year jail sentence in the same trial as Truong Minh Duc, was released in June 2018 on condition that he left the country. He now has political refugee status in Germany, where RSF met with him in order to ask about the conditions in which he was held.
“The guards were told to do everything possible to make my life a misery,” he said. “The water they gave me in the morning had an absolutely nauseating smell. When I was ill, they pressured me by threatening to withhold my medicine. During my first 20 days in detention, they systematically added uncooked grains to my rice, which made it almost uneatable. As for my family, no one was allowed to come and see me for 11 months.”
All this meanness by the prison administration had just one aim – “to destroy me mentally,” Dai said. “Even before I was officially placed under arrest, the police had beaten me badly (...) So, during my first few days in isolation, I convinced myself that it would be a mistake not to fight back.”
Dai is convinced that foreign pressure on Hanoi can help improve conditions for citizen-journalists in Vietnam. “Without international advocacy, I would still be serving my 15-year prison sentence,” he said.
Vietnam has long been near the bottom of RSF’s World Press Freedom Index and is ranked 175th out of 180 countries in the 2018 Index.