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Jailed Vietnamese rights activist marks one year in pre-trial detention

A well-known Vietnamese human rights activist who raised money for families of prisoners jailed for their political or religious views marked the first anniversary of her arrest for allegedly disseminating materials against the state, still in detention and awaiting trial.

Nguyen Thuy Hanh, founder of the 50K Fund, which provides financial support to family members of so-called prisoners of conscience, was arrested on April 7, 2021, by police in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi.

Authorities blocked her bank account in 2020 after she raised about 500 million Vietnamese dong (U.S. $21,600) to support the family of Le Dinh Kinh, the elderly leader of the Dong Tam commune, who was shot dead by security forces during a police raid in January 2020 amid a long-running land dispute.

Hanh closed her fund in early December to take time to treat an illness, but she affirmed her continuing support for prisoners of conscience.

Hanh herself had run afoul of Communist Party authorities for trying to run for a seat in Vietnam’s rubber-stamp National Congress in 2016.

Human rights lawyer and democracy activist Nguyen Van Dai, who has been arrested twice for political reasons, told RFA that during pre-trial periods, prisoners are not allowed to see their families or defense attorneys as an additional method of punishment.

“We need to understand the nature of the communist authoritarian regime in Vietnam,” he said. “When arresting political dissidents, their main purpose is not only to deprive their freedom but also to punish them both physically and mentally.

“The reason they don’t allow us to see our family or lawyers and do all kinds of things to suppress and torture us mentally is to exhaust our strength and determination and discourage us from fighting for our ideals after being released from jail,” he said.

Authorities also torment prisoners in pre-trial detention by sometimes providing half-cooked rice or stale food to eat or putting detergent into their soup, Dai added.

“Temporary detention is the most stressful time [for detainees], which can cause depression in those who cannot tolerate it,” he said.

Hanh’s husband, Huynh Ngoc Chenh, said his wife was very depressed before her arrest and that the family is concerned that her psychological state now may be worse.

“My wife Hanh was suffering from serious depression and was being treated by a doctor in Saigon [Ho Chi Minh City] when she was arrested,” he said. “After a while, the detention center allowed us to send her some medicine.”

Hanh was forced to undergo a month-long psychiatric evaluation while being held in pre-trial detention, Chenh told RFA in January.

But authorities did not tell Hanh’s family about her mental state. The family learned about her month-long stay in a hospital from other patients there.

“We don’t know anything about her health condition now,” Chenh said.

‘An act of torture’

Vietnam’s investigative security agencies often extend pre-trial detention periods for political prisoners, especially with high-profile detainees being held on alleged violations of national security.

Human rights organizations, including London-based Amnesty International Amnesty, have repeatedly expressed concerns over this practice, calling it “an act of torture.”

Vietnam is currently detaining 253 prisoners of conscience, including two dozen women, according to the rights group Defend the Defenders, though the organization said it believes that the actual number is higher.

Three dozen of those being held are in pre-trial detention, while the remainder has been sentenced, Vu Quoc Ngu, the organization’s director told RFA on Wednesday.

Prisoners charged with “sabotaging the national solidarity policy” and religious prisoners comprise the largest number of detainees, while about 100 belong to ethnic minority groups in northern Vietnam or the Central Highlands, he said.

The rest were charged with other crimes such as “overthrowing the people’s government,” “conducting anti-state propaganda,” and “abusing the rights to freedom and democracy,” Ngu said.

The real number of prisoners of conscience in Vietnam is likely much higher because Defend the Defenders has had difficulty obtaining information from detainees’ families or else their trials were held in secret and not covered by the media.

The number of prisoners of conscience “shows that Vietnam’s authoritarian regime disrespects the basic freedom rights, including freedom of speech, freedom of establishing associations and press freedom,” Ngu said. “This number reflects the communist government’s increasing suppression.”

Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translate by Anna Vu. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.