The family of a land rights activist serving an eight-year sentence for “conducting propaganda against the state” has denounced the detention facility in north-central Vietnam where he is being held for harsh treatment following a hunger strike protest, the man’s father said Wednesday.
Former prisoner of conscience Trinh Ba Khiem, who is also a land rights activist, said authorities at Detention Center No. 6 in Nghe An province pressured his son, Trinh Ba Tu, to work after he had been shackled for 10 days following a 22-day hunger strike.
“The detention center forced Tu to perform labor,” in October and November, said Khiem, who visited him on Monday, after prison officials lifted a previous ban on family visits to Tu.
RFA could not reach prison officials for comment.
Tu was arrested along with his brother, Trinh Ba Phuong, and their mother, Can Thi Theu, in mid-2020 on charges of “conducting propaganda against the state” for speaking out strongly on social networks about the Dong Tam land rights dispute.
The dispute centered on construction of a military airport opposed by villagers south of Hanoi.
The ensuing January 2020 clash left a popular local leader and three policemen dead. Twenty-nine villagers were arrested, and many were given stiff sentences.
In early May 2021, Tu and his mother were sentenced to eight years in prison and three years’ probation each. Phuong was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
After Tu held a Sept. 6-28 hunger strike to protest harsh conditions in prison, guards shackled his feet and beat him. He lost about 10 kilograms, or 22 pounds, and his health now is improving, Khiem said.
At the end of September, Tu’s family filed a petition with the Ministry of Public Security to investigate the matter. The ministry told the family to send the petition to the People's Procuracy of Nghe An province.
On Thursday, Do Thi Thu, Tu’s sister-in-law, met with Le Quoc Bao, deputy director of Division No. 8 at the provincial People’s Procuracy, who went to the prison to investigate the family’s complaint about Tu’s shackling and beating.
Family suspects cover-up
Tu’s hunger strike came after he filed a petition with detention center officials on Sept. 4, condemning their decision not to suspend the jail terms of fellow prisoner of conscience, Do Cong Duong, and allow him to go home for treatment after he had taken ill.
Duong, a citizen journalist, died in early August because prison officials did not allow him to receive timely medical treatment. Sources told RFA that Duong was healthy before being transferred to the detention facility.
Tu told Bao that on Sept. 6, Col. Tran Anh Que and Lt. Col. Truong Cong Hien from the prison met with him to discuss his petition. Two inmates convicted of drug trafficking also attended, at the request of the prison officials. Hien threw a cigarette lighter at him but missed, Tu later told his father.
When Tu decided to leave because he thought the situation could become dangerous, one of the other inmates grabbed his neck and held him, while Hien hit him on the head and called for a baton, saying “I’ll be responsible if [he is] dead.”
Because those involved in the incident later told Bao that they had not assaulted Tu, Bao said he could not confirm the beating in the absence of any evidence.
Prison officials also told Bao that the shackling and a ban on family visits in October were disciplinary acts in response to what they said was Tu’s false denunciation of the facility regarding Duong’s case, Thu said.
Prisoners normally have the right to one-hour monthly visits from their relatives, to make a 10-minute phone call every month and to receive provisions from their families.
“I think Nghe An People’s Procuracy has covered up for Detention Center No. 6,” Tu’s sister-in-law told RFA by text message. “If an independent human rights organization or newspaper had conducted the investigation, Tu’s beating would have been revealed, or if Tu had been allowed to use a cell phone to record or film, the truth would have been exposed.”
In late September, New York-based Human Rights Watch called for a proper investigation into Tu’s beating and shackling.
“That kind of treatment is outrageous and unacceptable, and the perpetrators should be held accountable for maltreating prisoners,” Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director, said at the time.
HRW also called on the United Nations and foreign diplomats to appeal to the Vietnamese government to give them access to Tu at the detention center.
Translated by Anna Vu for RFA Vietnamese. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin. Edited by Joshua Lipes.