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Relatives of political prisoners in Vietnam push for proper health care for inmates

About 30 families of political prisoners in Vietnam are calling on the government to allow sick inmates to be hospitalized after two inmates died, they said, from lack of timely care.

Do Cong Duong, an independent journalist who was jailed on charges of “disturbing public order” and “abusing the rights to freedom and democracy,” died at a hospital in Thanh Chuong district, Nghe An province, on Aug. 2, while serving time in Detention Center No. 6. 

He was healthy prior to his arrest, but he contracted multiple diseases in prison, and his supporters say authorities did not give him timely access to appropriate medical treatment. 

Duong’s passing was the second death among prisoners of conscience at the detention facility.

Another prisoner of conscience, Dao Quang Thuc, died in the same detention facility in 2019. The retired teacher was serving a 13-year term for “subversion” because of Facebook postings. When he showed signs of illness in prison, authorities took him to Nghe An Friendship General Hospital for treatment but after he returned to the detention center, he died a week later of what authorities said was a stroke, RFA reported at the time. His body was held for autopsy and not returned to his family for burial, sources said.

The families of prisoners of conscience sent the signed open letter on Aug. 9 to authorities stating their concerns over the health conditions of their imprisoned relatives, said Pham Thi Lan, the wife of political prisoner Nguyen Tuong Thuy, a former RFA blogger who is serving an 11-year jail term at An Phuoc Detention Center in the southern province of Binh Duong.

The relatives expressed outrage at the recent deaths and demanded that the Vietnamese government ensure that their incarcerated family members have access to health care, as Vietnamese law demands. 

The open letter said that the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights also requires that political prisoners be given access to proper health care. The Vietnamese government must respect prisoners’ rights, including rights to safe water and food and timely health care, the letter said. 

Political prisoners’ health has been a long-standing concern of their families and has become a hot-button issue after the two prisoners’ deaths.

Lan said she was “gravely concerned” about Thuy’s health because the 72-year-old suffers from high blood pressure, gout and skin diseases.

“The prison clinic does provide my husband with some medicines, but I am not sure whether the medicines work or their provision is just a temporary solution,” she said via text message. 

“I did request that they allow my husband to see a specialist, but the detention center refused, saying that Mr. Thuy was healthy enough to serve his prison term,” she added. 

Thuy’s family has expressed concerns about his health since he was detained, she said.  

‘Many have lost their lives’

Nguyen Van Hai, a political prisoner who was released and sent to the U.S. in 2014, said that he and other inmates lacked proper health care.

Some prisoners with heart issues who were not allowed to keep medicines in their cells died because they didn’t have access to their drugs or to urgent care, said Hai, a Vietnamese blogger and co-founder of the Free Journalists Club of Vietnam.

“Detention centers refuse to provide treatment for prisoners who have health problems,” he said. “This happens especially at Xuyen Moc Detention Center [in Ba Ria-Vung Tau province], Detention Center No. 6 in Nghe An province, and Detention Center No. 5 in Thanh Hoa province. Many have lost their lives in prison.” 

The harsh prison conditions, which may include forced labor, exacerbate a prisoner’s existing health problems, Hai said. 

Prison wardens and guards do not feel pressure to provide prisoners of conscience proper care because the authorities themselves are also empowered to investigate the deaths, so there is little accountability, he said. 

“When prison doors shut, laws and regulations have to stay outside them,” Hai told RFA. “The prisoners’ fates are in the hands of prison wardens and guards. Therefore, these people are very aggressive.” 

Hai said he believed that the treatment of prisoners of conscience would improve if the international community paid closer attention to the issue.

Under Vietnam’s 2019 Law on the Execution of Criminal Judgements, prisoners have the right to receive treatment at detention centers, prisons or the nearest state-run medical center. 

Prisoners that have serious illnesses that cannot be treated locally should be transferred to higher-level medical establishments, and district-level police must inform their families or a representative about the transfer, according to the law. 

Human rights attorney Nguyen Van Dai, who has twice been imprisoned for a total of nearly seven years, said the treatment of prisoners of conscience is often based on the whims of police officials.

“For example, if investigators say that prison guards should treat suspects [held in detention]  well, then that person will be provided with very good food and health care,” he told RFA.

“However, the treatment towards the suspect will be reversed, including the provision of health care, if investigators say that he or she should be treated poorly.

“Investigators want to put pressure on the suspect through this treatment so that they can quickly get the investigation outcomes they want,” he added. 

Dai, founder of the Brotherhood for Democracy, also said medical staff at prison clinics are usually able to only handle minor health issues. But prison authorities make it difficult for inmates with serious illnesses to move to a better-equipped and staffed medical center. 

Translated by Anna Vu for RFA Vietnamese. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.