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Vietnam: New report on prison torture

- Amnesty granted rare access including guided tour of a women’s prison

- First human rights report since Obama lifted arms embargo in May

A new report published by Amnesty International today (12 July) casts a rare light on the torture and other harrowing treatment of prisoners locked up in Vietnam’s secretive network of detention centres.

The 54-page report details the ordeal of Vietnam’s ‘prisoners of conscience’, held solely for peacefully expressing their views. The prisoners told Amnesty how they spent lengthy periods of time in solitary confinement in dark, fetid cells without access to fresh air, clean water and sanitation. Some were frequently beaten, in clear contravention of global and national prohibitions on torture and medical care was withheld.

Vietnam, a one-party state under the Communist Party of Vietnam, has long been one of Asia’s most prolific jailers of prisoners of conscience. The party is particularly sensitive to any challenge to its authority, whether real or perceived, and sentences are severe.

Despite the consequences they face, people in Vietnam continue to call for multi-party democracy and advocate for human rights. Men and women are routinely arrested for their peaceful activism and convicted on baseless charges, often of infringing national security, and given lengthy prison sentences in the country’s notorious prison system where they are subjected to torture and other ill-treatment.

For many of the former prisoners Amnesty spoke to, the torture and ill-treatment was especially intense during pre-trial detention, as the authorities aimed to extract a “confession”.

Rafendi Djamin, Amnesty’s Director for South East Asia and the Pacific.

“Vietnam is a prolific jailer of prisoners of conscience; this report offers a rare glimpse at the horror that those prisoners face in detention.

“Vietnam ratified the UN Convention against Torture in 2015. This in itself is not enough. In order to meet its human rights obligations, the authorities must introduce reforms in line with international law and ensure accountability for torture and ill-treatment.”

Solitary confinement, no access to lawyers, beatings

For many of the former prisoners, their ordeal began from the moment that they were picked up by the Vietnamese authorities. Four people told Amnesty they were subjected to ‘enforced disappearances’, whereby they were secretly abducted and imprisoned by the state without a chance to inform their families or lawyers.

Every former prisoner of conscience that Amnesty spoke to was subjected to a lengthy period of incommunicado detention – ranging from a month to two years. The right to access lawyers, medical professionals and family members is an important safeguard against torture and ill treatment and critical to the right to a fair trial.

‘Dar’, an ethnic Montagnard, the indigenous peoples of the Central Highlands of Vietnam, was arrested for organising peaceful demonstrations over religious freedom and human rights. For the first three months following his arrest, his family believed that he had been killed by the authorities, and his body dumped in the jungle. He was tried and convicted without legal representation and without his family present.

During the first 10 months of Dar’s five-year detention, he was kept in solitary confinement in a tiny cell, in total darkness and complete silence. For the first two months, he was hauled from his cell each day to be interrogated and beaten.

The beatings were carried out with sticks, rubber tubes, punches and kicks. The authorities used electric shocks and lit a piece of paper and ran it along the length of his leg, burning his skin. They asked him to assume painful stress positions for eight hours at a time.

On one occasion, he was hung from the ceiling by his arms for 15 minutes while the police beat him. The police officers would sometimes resume their beatings in the middle of the night, when they stormed into his cell, apparently drunk.

Lack of family access

Two of the former prisoners were not told that their mothers had died and were denied the chance to attend the funeral or mourn with their families.

Tạ Phong Tần, who was imprisoned for her blogging and advocacy, told Amnesty that during her four years in prison, only her sister was allowed to visit her. After being denied access twice, Tần’s mother, Đặng Thị Kim Liêng, set herself on fire in front of a government office in protest and died as a result of her burns.

Torture, drugging, lack of medical care

A number of former prisoners of conscience said they were cramped into small cells, where other prisoners known as “antennae” were believed to have colluded with prison authorities and incited to attack them. This kept them under the constant threat of imminent violence.

Withholding or denying medical treatment for periods of months and even years is another punitive measure prisoners described to Amnesty.  Interviewees also alleged that they were drugged by prison staff.

Chau Heng, a Khmer Krom land rights activist, told Amnesty that during four months’ incommunicado detention prior to his trial, he was not only beaten unconscious several times, but also injected with unknown drugs at least twice – causing memory loss, rendering him unconscious and unable to speak or think clearly.

When he was taken to see the prison doctor, he opened his mouth to gesture that he could not speak. “The doctor hit me in the mouth with a round piece of hard rubber. He knocked my teeth out, including a wisdom tooth. I lost so much blood I passed out again.”

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