On a sunny August day last year, a large group of family members, friends, and supporters rushed through the gates of a police station in Lâm Hà District in southern Lâm Đồng Province to welcome home Trần Minh Nhật.
For four years, Nhật had been shuttered away in five different prison camps under the charge of subversion. On this day, he was greeted with an emotional homecoming.
As a college student, Nhật participated in protests against China’s claims to Việt Nam’s sovereign waters, mobilized action against bauxite mining in the Central Highlands, and volunteered as a reporter for a Catholic media network, the Việt Nam Redemptorist News, and Radio Alfonso. Like many activists, he experienced clashes with the security police, often taking place during peaceful protests.
His 2011 arrest in Sài Gòn took place moments after he had finished university exams.
In prison, Nhật endured putrid water and spoiled food, at times launched weeks-long hunger strikes to protest his conditions. Now 28 years old and freed from prison walls, Nhật has yet to be free from the threat of police brutality.
Back home in the Central Highlands, Nhật has begun to learn that the three years of house arrest that follow his prison sentence means constant harassment.
“The most recent incident occurred on February 22. It was nighttime and I was reading prayers with my family when Long, one of the policemen, rammed his motorcycle into our gates,” he tells Loa. “My mother had to come out and see what was happening. He began taunting and cursing at her, yelling all kinds of profanities.”
The intense police harassment he has endured in recent months has happened so often that he now knows the names of his perpetrators.
“Why do I say that it’s the Lâm Hà police? How do I know their names? I know because these are the same people who have been monitoring me and throwing rocks at my home. They are the Lâm Hà security police. It’s this guy Long and Hùng and Huân who frequently assault me, frequently block my motorbike,” Nhật asserts.
Like many former prisoners of conscience in Việt Nam, Nhật’s life under house arrest is one of limited movement and constant surveillance. A simple trip to get a health checkup would require permission. Last fall, while traveling with another activist to get medical care for an injury that occurred from a different police beating, Nhật was ambushed by plainclothes police:
“When I was finished getting examined, just 100 meters from the clinic, they stopped me right in the middle of town, close to my old school. They attacked me in front of everyone,” he recounts. “Seven to eight people swerved into my vehicle and started to assault me. They took me to police headquarters. Ask yourself: If these were regular citizens, how could they enter the police headquarters like that? How can they let people get attacked like that, right in front of a police station? And if they’re not police, why would they question me and then document the proceedings?”
Nhat is questioning a brutal security police force that acts with impunity - and has become a daily threat to human rights activists. While the number of arrests and political prisoners in jail has decreased in the past year, police beatings are a nearly daily reality.
Facebook posts of prominent activists not only detail day-to-day efforts of their work but now document the ways they are terrorized: surveillance, confiscation of laptops and cellphones, verbal assaults, ambushes, and beatings.
And it’s not just activists who are the target of police violence. A search on YouTube for the terms “công an đánh người” or “security police brutalizing people” returns 230,000 videos of traffic cops slapping commuters who refuse to pay a fine; bystanders at protests being thrown to the ground and getting stomped on their faces; farmers being physically dragged off their lands.
The source of such widespread police abuse is a ruling party that uses the security police as both a blunt instrument of force for the state and a policing body that acts without the rule of law.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, explains,
“It’s important to actually recognize that the police [serves] always a dual role in Việt Nam. On one hand, the real priority has been on serving as almost a political instrument to help safeguard the ruling party power, protecting the Vietnamese Communist Party against what it considers to be hostile or domestic and foreign forces, and then secondarily, acting as a professional policing body.”
Việt Nam’s Ministry of Public Security is the political body that controls the police. With its origins in the military, the MPS oversees two forces: the People’s Police Force, responsible for investigating crimes and more traditional police work; and the People’s Security Force, an apparatus used to protect the state.
It is the People’s Security Force that focuses on political crimes, on the dissidents and activists that speak out. They work to take out threats to national security, these days more often defined as bloggers or human rights activists.
The cops beating up on Trần Minh Nhật and so many other activists? That’s the security police, or công an. They are often recognizable by their ill-fitting green uniforms. Attacks on activists by plainclothes police? Also a unit of the công an.
So just how powerful is the MPS? Well, the current Minister of Public Security, Trần Đại Quang, was just chosen as the new president of Việt Nam.
The targeting of dissidents is not random; it is organized from above.
“The dissidents, the people who are political and are recognized by the government as political, they are really targeted with a much more top-down approach by the Ministry of Public Security, through harassment, use of thugs, regular intimidation of family and friends of the dissidents, and efforts to try to get employers not to hire them,” Robertson says. “All these things are part of a total package of pressure that the police are the key persons in placing on these dissidents, at the order and instigation of those higher up within the party.”
Trần Thị Thúy Nga, a 39-year-old activist and single mother of two from Hà Nam, has had so many brushes with the security police, she has even heard their excuses for using violence.
“There were times when the police were attacking me and they said to me, ‘Please understand, these are orders given from above, some were from the Politburo.’ They said these are just orders coming from security police and they’re just here following orders. They know I haven’t done anything wrong but it’s their task to watch me. It’s their orders to attack me. It’s not because we’re enemies,” she recounts.
She adds, “It’s because when they step into the profession of security police, they have pledged their loyalty to the party, to protect the government and not the people. This is why they carry out these attacks. In their mind, they are not supposed to oppose these orders despite knowing that these actions are wrong. They just have to carry it out. That is the most dangerous part of the way security police think.”
Nga is known for documenting her attacks. Her two YouTube channels host hundreds of short clips and videos of confrontations with the security police. Many were brutal attacks that lead to injuries. But she says it is the banality of the everyday harassment--the everyday occurence of being brought in for questioning--that is the most humiliating.
“Whenever I am detained, they take and go through everything, inspecting anything and everything I have. There are times when they take all my clothes off me so they can take all my recorders, phones and cameras. They don’t allow me to contact anyone and I am always monitored,” she says.
For Nhật, the abuse outside prison walls is uniquely disturbing in the way it affects loved ones--there is no guarantee that it will only affect you individually, he says.
“I think the prison conditions are quite different from what I experience on the outside. While they are able to threaten my nephews and nieces while I was in prison, it’s just me who is physically attacked. I was beaten in prison and had my rights taken away from me. But that was just me. Now that I’ve been released, I’m not the only one being attacked and harassed anymore. It’s also my family, my siblings, my friends. It’s my community who are now under constant intimidation.”
In many countries, police are meant to serve and protect. In Việt Nam, it is abuse and repeat.