Published July 6, 2015 in Episode 11
On June 27, small group of about ten people, stood anxiously outside of a prison in the central Quảng Nam province. They were awaiting the release of a lawyer by the name of Lê Quốc Quân. He had just spent 30 months in prison on trumped up charges of tax evasion.
His real crime? Quân had spent years as a vocal advocacy and writings on human rights have made him the victim of years-long police harassment and violence. Lê Quốc Quân is a human rights lawyer and a fellow of the National Endowment for Democracy, a US-based non-profit funded by the U.S. Congress.
Today, the 43-year-old is back with his wife and three children in Hà Nội and he went “On The Record” with Lilly Nguyễn about life in captivity, his first days of freedom and the continued fight ahead.
Lilly Nguyễn: First of all, attorney Quân, thank you so much for joining me on Loa today. Before we start, I just want to see how you are doing, physically and emotionally, now that you are free?
Lê Quốc Quân: Thank you very much for calling me and I’m very pleased to join you on Loa today. First of all, thank you for your question. I feel happy to meet my wife, my family, my brothers and friends who waited for me not only in front of the prison but also welcomed me at the airport when I came back to Hà Nội.
And physically, I'm not so strong. I went on a hunger strike for 14 days before I was released. So generally, I feel so happy and full of emotions, with a very good and clear mind.
Lilly Nguyễn: You spent 30 months in jail on tax evasion charges, but we all know that you were penalized for your work on human rights and your blogging activity. What was life in captivity like? Were you held in solitary confinement?
Lê Quốc Quân: Yes, I have to say that I was in prison because of my human rights and my blogging activities. So they charged me on tax evasion, a miscarriage of justice. For the first 18 months, I was jailed in a 60 square meter room with 50 persons and I was kept with a lot of criminals like robbers and killers. And you know, that gave a very strong terrible pressure on my mental (health).
For the last year, after the appeal, they sent me to An Điềm Prison [Editor’s note: in central Quảng Nam province]. It’s about 800 km from Hà Nội. In there, the life materially is better but I was kept in an area for ten prisoners of conscience. It’s kind of a prison within a prison.
We were kept there for ten people in a very small area, a small confinement. You can call it solitary confinement. And in each unit cell, were two people. And I stayed with one ethnic minority working for the Montagnard nation in the Central Highlands. He's a Montagnard but he cannot speak Vietnamese.
Of course I was treated differently from the other prisoners. They gave me better physical conditions, like eating, and they gave me a little more vegetable or some meat per week. Eating is okay for me. It’s acceptable but mentally, they put a lot of pressure on me.
I learned a lot from that time. I think that even though it was a hardship time, I feel better and I feel stronger. I am ready to challenge much more difficulties in the future.
Lilly Nguyễn: Great. You mentioned that you were treated differently from other prisoners. Why do you think that was the case? Why were treated differently from other prisoners? Do you think it's because they know that people outside were advocating for you?
Lê Quốc Quân: I think the role of advocacy and mobilization of helping me outside is very, very important. Because at the beginning, they intended to charge me with Article 79, “aiming to overthrow the government.” And after that, they changed it to Article 88, “propaganda against the government.” But that is much more political.
I think that if they charged me with political articles, it will be more difficult for them so they changed it to Article 161. It’s tax evasion. So the helping of the outside is very good because they had to move to another article; it’s only 30 months.
And the second thing, I think very it’s important because of the support of the outside so that they can release me freely. If there is no support, no advocacy from the outside, I think I could be arrested in front of prison while I was released, like the case of Điếu Cày before.
Lilly Nguyễn: So at what point were you aware of international advocacy for you, when you were in prison?
Lê Quốc Quân: My family informed me in the court when they charged me of tax evasion - so many diplomats and politicians requested the government to release me. When I was in An Điềm just one month before I was released, the German human rights delegation came to visit me in prison. So when they came to visit me, we would talk, and I think they prepared carefully before. They had a good treatment for me like for example like medical treatments and I would like to express gratitude on that.
Lilly Nguyễn: Attorney Quân, you have been targeted for your blog, writing on a broad range of human rights issues, religious issues, and other issues not covered by the state-controlled media. You mentioned that even though you were imprisoned, you were always working, working to provide legal consultations to other prisoners. Have you ever censor yourself in your own writing while in prison?
Lê Quốc Quân: Yes, I have to say that I’m so happy and can be proud of myself because I could work when I was in prison. It was a difficult situation. However, I tried my best to give legal consultations to the other prisoners, even though they are criminals.
I prepared for them on how to talk in front of the court, how to defend themselves and how to make a good a petition if they wanted to have a petition or claim for the appeal. And one very important things is I can support five people in the Bia Sơn case. The Bia Sơn case is a case that 22 people were charged with Article 79, “aiming to overthrow the government.”
They were in jail on very heavy, very long sentences: 12, 16, 17 years. I was kept with five of them. They are prisoners of conscience. So everyday, we had two hours of meeting each other so I gave them consultations to and I prepared the petition for them. On April 30 this year, they sent their appeal and they requested for their fair trial because they believe that their case is a miscarriage of justice and they demanded justice for themselves.
Before, they were very afraid but later on, they are not afraid anymore. They believe in what they have been doing and they believe [that] the government charging them with long sentences is a violation of international conventions, a violation of the law of Việt Nam so they decided to stand up about their case.
Generally, I am a prisoner. I am not allowed to write. So you still see my writings, papers published outside, yes it is mine. I wrote it but those writings are in secret. And the way I sent it out is secretly but of course when I wrote, I did not censor myself but it is illegal, I can be charged. It’s so hard, so difficult situation but I tried my best to write in secret and to sent it secretly outside of prison so that it can be published outside.
Lilly Nguyễn: Wow. It sounds like you had a full-time job while in prison.
Lê Quốc Quân: It’s not full-time but I’m very happy with that. I can help with people and I’m proud of that.
Lilly Nguyễn: We’re running out of time but I have one last question. You have three young children. Your youngest was under a year old when you were detained. Being away from them must be one of top emotional challenges that you had to endure. Are you thinking of staying low key in your activism for their protection, now that you are free?
Lê Quốc Quân: Of course, I have to say to you that being away from them is a top emotional challenge for me and I had to endure that day by day. And every night I think about their futures and sometimes I’m afraid very much.
However, I have been working on my way, I have been following all the work on human rights and blogging activities and I aim to a better Việt Nam. So I will not stop. I am trying to do anything that makes a better Việt Nam. I do hope that one day Việt Nam will have true freedom and democracy. I know that it is hard for my families. My family understand that the contributions for the great movement of the nation is really good.
The difficulties that face day by day of my family member is really hard, very difficult. I try to balance somehow but I will not stop my way.
Low key or high key is not important, but of course for my children’s sake, I have to protect them. But protection doesn't mean I have to stay low key in my activism.
I have to choose the right way to go ahead, even stronger, even much more active but what is good for my nation. I will try my best to do and i can devote my personal life. I may face terrible situation but if it is good for the nation, I will continue to do with that and I am very ready to do that.
Finally I would like to say thank you for your interview. Through this interview, I would like to express my gratitude to all the people who have been support for me and have been standing by me and by my family in the difficult times.
Lilly Nguyễn: Thank you so much for your sacrifices. Thank you for your service to Việt Nam and thank you for your time. It's an honor to have you on Loa today.
Lê Quốc Quân: Thank you very much.