I stood peacefully with my sign, protesting Beijing
The first people to come were the police
They looked at me as a scabrous dog
I fell down, they lift me up
Their punches again landing on my face
Yet, they’re my compatriots
Sharing with me this arid land of rocks and sand
This is an extract from a poem by Nguyen Xuan Nghia, a 64-year-old Vietnamese writer and journalist who has been in prison since September 2008. I first wrote about Nghia in these pages in December 2009, just after he had been sentenced to six years in prison for writing poetry and prose that 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’.
Nghia is a member of the Hai Phong Association of Writers and a founding member of the banned democracy movement known as Bloc 8406. He was also editor of the underground democracy journal To Quoc (‘Fatherland’) Review. As a journalist, he wrote for all the main official papers until the government banned him in 2003 because of his pro-democracy activities.
Nghia has suffered continuous harassment since then: 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; and he was badly beaten by policemen at the Hanoi courthouse when he attempted to attend the trial of two fellow dissidents. On 11 September 2008, Nghia was among dozens of activists arrested as part of an ongoing crackdown on peaceful dissent.
On 9 October 2009, after a trial that reportedly lasted just a few hours, Nghia was convicted of conducting anti-government propaganda under Article 88 of Vietnam’s penal code. Article 88 forbids ‘all propaganda against the Communist system of government’. The indictment against Nghia cited 57 pieces dating from 2007 until his arrest in 2008, including poetry, literature, short stories and articles.
The main reason for the harsh sentencing undoubtedly stems from Nghia’s senior role in Bloc 8406, a coalition of political parties and organisations campaigning for political reform in Vietnam. (The government bans all independent political parties, unions and human rights organisations as a matter of course.) In 2006, the group published a ‘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. The group also organised peaceful demonstrations prior to China’s hosting of the Beijing Olympics.
On 21 January 2010, an appeals court in the northern port city of Haiphong upheld Nghia’s sentence. Foreign journalists were not permitted to attend the proceedings, which lasted a day. Initially, Nghia was reported to be held in solitary confinement at the B14 labour camp in Ha Dong province, south of Hanoi. According to his wife, Nguyen Thi Nga, he also endured a period when he was denied the right to see his family in retaliation for informing them about peaceful protests against prison conditions.
In March 2012, his family discovered that he had been transferred to a new detention facility, close to the Vietnamese border with Laos and more than 400 kilometres from their family home, making Nga’s visits even more difficult and costly. Later that month, she had to travel for two days in order to visit him. She reported that Nghia was suffering from a number of health complaints, that his morale had been seriously affected and that he had contemplated suicide on a number of occasions.
In July 2013, PEN was informed that another prominent writer, Nguyen Van Hai (aka Dieu Cay), currently serving a 12-year prison sentence, had been on hunger strike to protest against the ill-treatment he and fellow detainees have suffered at the hands of their prison guards. Hai is well known for his online writings calling for greater respect for human rights and democratic reforms and is also deemed a prisoner of conscience. Hai’s family and the international community only learned of the hunger strike because Nghia courageously told his wife about his fellow prisoner’s protest during her most recent visit. After shouting out the news, Nghia was reportedly gagged and dragged across the floor and out of the visiting area. As punishment, he was held incommunicado and in solitary confinement, before being moved into a new prison cell that he shares with a dangerous prisoner, Tran Van Tien. On 5 September 2013, Nga reported that Nghia had been badly beaten by Tien and she continues to fear for her husband’s health and safety.
Readers might like to send appeals urging the Vietnamese authorities to ensure that Nguyen Xuan Nghia is not punished for relating details of his fellow prisoner Nguyen Van Hai’s hunger strike; expressing grave concern for the health and safety of Hai, who is reported to be seriously ill as a result of the hunger strike, poor treatment and lack of medical care in detention; and calling for the immediate and unconditional release of both writers and all those detained in violation of their rights to freedom of expression, in accordance with Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Vietnam is a state party.
As there are no fax numbers available for the Vietnamese authorities, please write to the ambassador:
His Excellency Mr Vu Quang Minh
Embassy of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam
12–14 Victoria Road
London W8 5RD
Updates: Shi Tao (LR, February 2006, February 2008 and May 2013), a Chinese poet and journalist, was released in early August, 15 months before the end of his 10-year sentence.
Nasrin Sotoudeh (LR, December 2012), an Iranian lawyer, was unexpectedly released from prison on 18 September 2013, 3 years before the end of her 6-year sentence. Thank you to all readers who sent appeals.