The forced hospitalisation of dissidents is becoming increasingly widespread. In these pages I have written about Dzhamshid Karimov, an Uzbek journalist who remains locked up in a psychiatric ward in Uzbekistan; Vladimir Chugunov, a Russian journalist, who was held in psychiatric detention for five months in 2007; and Larisa Arap, also Russian, an opposition activist who was detained in a psychiatric clinic last year for forty-six days.
Vietnam is the latest country to employ this cruel practice in order to silence its dissident voices. Bui Kim Thành, aged forty-nine, is a human rights lawyer, Internet writer and member of the banned Democratic Party of Vietnam. She reports for various media outlets, international NGOs and on the Internet on issues of social injustice and human rights violations in Vietnam. She also works free of charge defending low-income families in her community who have had property confiscated by the authorities and are seeking redress.
On 6 March 2008, police broke into her house in Ho Chi Minh City. She was forcibly removed and taken to the Bien Hoa Mental Hospital in the south of the country, around twenty miles from Saigon, where she has been held ever since. Bui Kim Thành’s relatives and fellow human rights advocates have reportedly been denied access to her at the hospital, and there are serious concerns for her well-being. PEN has taken up her case: the writers’ organisation believes she is being targeted for her critical online writing, dissident activities and, in particular, her defence of destitute women farmers made homeless by illegal land expropriation.
The Communist Party leaders are keen to turn Vietnam into a developed, industrialised country, but appear less enthusiastic about loosening their iron grip on freedom of expression. Reporters sans frontières (RSF) report a renewed onslaught against a free press, opposition movements and dissident publications in Vietnam. They describe ‘Stalinist trials’ and the return of ‘popular courts’, in which residents are invited to denounce and condemn an accused person. RSF observe that the country has experienced its biggest crackdown on the Internet for six years and that it follows the Chinese model in its hardline approach to freedom of expression online: ‘In the space of one week, six cyber-dissidents were sentenced to prison terms of three to five years.’ According to Human Rights Watch’s figures, Bui Kim Thành joins around forty peaceful activists – including more than ten women – who have been imprisoned or placed under house arrest during the last eighteen months in Vietnam. Underground publishers, cyber-dissidents, human rights lawyers, opposition party members and labour union leaders have all been targeted.
This is the second time Bui Kim Thành has been detained in a psychiatric hospital by the Vietnamese authorities. Amnesty International first issued urgent appeals in November 2006 when Bui Kim Thành was held at the Bien Hoa Psychiatric Hospital, despite being assessed by two psychiatrists who concluded that she was not suffering from any mental illness. Her incarceration lasted for eight months, during which time she is said to have been forcibly injected with unknown medication, to the point where she was unable to talk. After her release in July 2007, she was placed under house arrest, but courageously decided to continue her work.
The forced hospitalisation of dissidents is a chilling form of torture that appears to be in vogue once more and is being used with impunity. What is so frightening is the immediate isolation of the victims. Consequently there is little information regarding the ‘medication’ that they may be forced to undergo in hospital – anything from electric shocks to the administration of mind-altering drugs. Equally, the potentially harmful long-term effects of any enforced treatment are unknown.
It may be a good time to bring pressure on Vietnam regarding its human rights record. After two decades of remarkable expansion, since the implementation of the doi moi (renewal) reforms, the Vietnamese government is looking to consolidate its position on the world stage. Although it remains a one-party state, in which legal opposition to the regime is not permitted and the Communist Party decides all major policy issues, the country is finally opening up after years of isolation. In 1995 Vietnam joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Relations between the US and Vietnam are now fully restored – in fact the US is now Vietnam’s main trading partner. In 2006 Presidents George Bush, Vladimir Putin and Hu Jintao, amongst others, were welcomed to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Hanoi. Following widespread economic liberalisation, Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization in 2007 and currently holds one of the rotating seats on the United Nations Security Council.
Readers may like to send appeals expressing serious concern that Bui Kim Thành is being held in psychiatric detention without any apparent medical basis, and that she is at risk of torture and ill-treatment; calling for her immediate and unconditional release if she is being held in violation of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Vietnam is a signatory; and pointing out that the harassment of Bui Kim Thành for carrying out her peaceful political activities and professional work is a violation of her rights to freedom of expression and association. Appeals should be sent to:
His Excellency Mr Tran Quang Hoan
Vietnamese Ambassador to the UK
Embassy of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam
12–14 Victoria Road
London W8 5RD
Fax: +44 (0) 20 7937 6108