On 9 October 2009, a writer from Vietnam was sentenced to six years in prison ostensibly for his poetry, short stories and articles. His work allegedly sought to ‘insult the Communist Party of Vietnam, distort the situation of the country, slander and disgrace the country’s leaders, demand a pluralistic and multiparty system … and incite and attract other people into the opposition movement’.
Well-known novelist and journalist Nguyen Xuan Nghia was a recipient of the prestigious Hellman/Hammett Award in 2008, and is editor of the underground democracy journal To Quoc (Fatherland). He is among six dissidents who were charged with conducting anti-government propaganda, under article 88 of Vietnam’s penal code. As well as being detained for writing about democracy in his own country, he was accused of organising peaceful demonstrations against China’s hosting of the Beijing Olympics. But the main reason for the harsh sentencing undoubtedly stems from Nghia’s leadership of the banned pro-democracy group Bloc 8406, a coalition of political parties and organisations campaigning for political reform in Vietnam. (As a matter of course, the government bans all independent political parties, unions, and human rights organisations.) Three years ago, the group created the ‘Manifesto on Freedom and Democracy for Vietnam’. This was initially signed by 118 dissidents, but as news of the manifesto spread, the number of signatories grew into the thousands. Nguyen Van Ly, a priest and writer, was arrested in February 2007 and was later sentenced to eight years in prison for his involvement with Bloc 8406.
The new wave of arrests began in September 2008 as part of an ongoing crackdown on freedom of expression. In the past year, peaceful dissidents have been harassed, assaulted, imprisoned on trumped-up charges, dismissed from their jobs, detained and interrogated by police, publicly humiliated in officially orchestrated ‘Peoples’ Tribunals’, and injured by officially sanctioned mobs. The five other activists sentenced with Nghia are poet and teacher Nguyen Van Tinh, human rights defender Nguyen Kim Nhan, poet and land activist Nguyen Van Tuc, student and Internet writer Ngo Quynh, and writer Nguyen Manh Son.
According to a police report obtained by Human Rights Watch (HRW), the group hung pro-democracy banners on bridges in Hai Duong and Haiphong cities in August 2008 and planned and conducted demonstrations against China and the Beijing Olympics in 2007 and 2008. In addition, the police report stated that the six regularly met to exchange ideas; they maintained relationships with democracy activists in Vietnam and abroad; and provided information to foreign radio stations and newspapers. The indictment against Nghia cited fifty-seven pieces he had written from 2007 until his arrest in 2008.
HRW describes Nghia as belonging to a family with strong revolutionary credentials: his father was a long-standing member of the Vietnamese Communist Party and his oldest brother was killed in the first Indochina war. As a journalist, Nghia wrote for all the main government papers until 2003, when he was banned by the authorities because of his pro-democracy activities. Since then, he has suffered continuous harassment: he has been arrested, detained and interrogated multiple times; his house has been searched twice; he has been denounced at public meetings and socially isolated. On 27 November 2007, he was badly beaten by policemen at the Hanoi courthouse when he attempted to attend the trial of two fellow dissidents.
Sixty-year-old Nghia is already in poor health, and there are concerns that he will be ill-treated during his detention. According to PEN, prisoners of conscience in Vietnam usually serve their sentences in forced labour camps under appalling conditions. They are often held in solitary confinement or in crowded cells with criminals. Some of them are victims of physical aggression and ill-treatment. Many suffer from chronic diseases and are denied adequate medical care. HRW has compiled evidence of the torture of political and religious prisoners, including beatings and electric shocks.
Vietnam, a one-party communist state, has one of Southeast Asia’s fastest growing economies and the United States is now its main trading partner. In response to the trials of recent months, the United States House of Representatives passed a resolution on 21 October, calling on the Vietnamese government to respect freedom of expression and to release all political prisoners, including bloggers and cyber activists who use the Internet to express their views, and urging the repeal of laws restricting free speech.
Readers may like to send appeals expressing alarm at the ongoing crackdown on dissidents in Vietnam, and calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Nguyen Xuan Nghia and all those detained for the peaceful exercise of their right to free expression, in accordance with Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Vietnam is a signatory.
Appeals should be addressed to:
His Excellency Tran Quang Hoan
Embassy of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam
12–14 Victoria Road
London W8 5RD
Fax: 020 7937 6108
Update: On 17 October 2009, Canadian-Iranian journalist, writer and filmmaker Maziar Bahari was released from Evin prison in Tehran, on a bail of approximately £180,000. It is believed he was released on humanitarian grounds, two days before his wife gave birth to the couple’s first child. He was allowed to leave Iran and has been reunited with his family. Human rights organisations continue to call for all charges against Bahari to be dropped.