Published August 17, 2015 in Episode 17
"On the road of life,
There are times when we find ourselves at a crossroad
Not knowing which path to take."
When Vietnamese youth around the world came together to record the song Phải Lên Tiếng (Speak Up Now), the young man who wrote the lyrics, was already behind bars. Paulus Lê Văn Sơn didn’t know the song was written using words from his blog.
It was sung to raise awareness of his profile and work, work for social justice, for human rights, for territorial sovereignty. In short, the kind of work that lands you in jail in a country like Việt Nam.
Sơn was 26 when he was arrested and jailed at Detention center B14 in Hà Nội.
“In this six square meter jail cell, we would eat, we would rest, we would use the bathroom,” he tells Loa. “Everything was done within those six square meters.”
For the next four years, his life was put on hold, his dignity suspended. In four years, he saw the insides of four different prison cells. Outside the jail walls, time moved quickly. One thousand and four hundred suns rose and set. Moons waxed and waned through dozens of cycles. His mother passed away.
“Often on clear days, when there was a moon, I longed to see the moon, but I couldn’t see it.” Sơn recalls. “I would fill a bowl with water and place it as far as I could reach, so that the moonlight could reflect on my water bowl. Then I could see just how round that moon was.”
Sơn was arrested on Aug. 3, 2011, in a massive crackdown on dissent that year. 17 human rights activists were swept up, all parishioners of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer and the Presbyterian Church in Nghên An province, They were later sentenced with three to 13 years in jail on charges of subversion. Sơn received the harshest punishment, 13 years. It was later reduced to four years after an appeals trial, during which he was counseled to admit wrongdoing.
It was at that appeals trial, when he first learned his mother had passed away, two years earlier.
“Near the appeals trial, I received the news,” Sơn says, his voice breaking. “I was completely caught by surprise. In front of the lawyer, with the security police sitting there monitoring me, I almost fell to my knees. I could not think. I could not believe what I was just told.”
For the 17 activists and many others who have lived through political imprisonment, the government’s goal to target and silence their dissent isn’t completed once the prison door closes behind them.
He remembers the day he got a dose of this practice: “A fellow inmate, that night of February 1st, 2012, hit me in the face, in my eyes. For no reason at all. He told me I'm not allowed to pray. Even though, I was sitting and praying silently with my eyes closed. The prisoner forbade me from praying.”
That fellow “inmate" stayed with him for more three months. Sơn says the man asked him many questions about his supposed charge and his social work. Eventually Sơn turned the question around and asked if the prisoner was there to interrogate him. The other man said, yes, he was a security police. Then the beating incident happened. When Sơn sounded the alarm to the guards, he was soon transferred out of B14. But things didn’t get better.
Sơn was transported to Prison No. 1 in Hà Nội. Like the infamous Hanoi Hilton, it is also known as Hỏa Lò, or fiery furnace. His cell was far off in the back and isolated. When he stepped inside, he found five others, common criminals, awaiting.
“When I arrived at Hỏa Lò, the other prisoners were already there. When I first came, they said, sit down on one foot. Yes. Sit down on one foot. Then they kicked me in my face,” Sơn says.
It was a hazing ritual. The men then forced Sơn to serve them.
“They made me wash their clothes. They forced me to give them massages. Everything that they needed done in the cell, I did it.”
It was his faith that helped him withstand the abuse, Sơn says.
“For a long time, I endured because, I thought to myself I am a Christian,” he says. “So I didn’t blame them, I didn’t fight them. I thought that if the Lord can serve, and if He can endure torture and be hung at the Cross, then I must be able to do this, as His child. And I really served.”
The physical abuse was one thing. Then there were the drugs and the sexual indecencies that almost broke him.
“These prisoners, they had been jailed four or five times already. How was it, that in prison, they were still allowed to shoot heroin, use methamphetamines and other drugs? And they tried to get me to take them, many times,” He says, “They even forced me to take drugs, but I refused. I didn’t take them.”
“Then, this is very awful and horrific. During the hot summer days, they would completely undress and lie there to sleep and they did things that were truly disturbing.”
The practice of housing hardcore criminals with political dissidents is a common tactic of intimidation used by the authorities, says Nguyễn Văn Oai. Oai was among the group of 17 arrested and like Sơn, he was released this August.
Oai and Sơn were housed together in a different prison in Vinh, when they awaited their trial and official charges in January 2013. There, conditions were similarly harsh.
“After 18 months (in Hà Nội), they brought us to Vinh for the trial. They put us in cells with drug addicts, murderers. We were with those who were HIV positive,” Oai says.
Never mind the lack of legal representation or due process. Oai says he saw his lawyer one time only, right before the trial.
Trương Minh Tam, a member of Con Đường Việt Nam, the Việt Nam Path Movement, spent a year in prison for his political expressions. He says the situation for political prisoners in Việt Nam is dire. In May, he travelled to Ottawa to testify in front of the Canadian Parliament on Việt Nam’s treatment of prisoners of conscience.
There Tam sounded the alarm.
“Each of these narrow cells, they put two prisoners in there. One of them is a criminal, whose job it is to monitor the political prisoner. These criminals will incite and find reasons to beat up the political prisoners. Meaning, the authorities are using an indirect form of administering torture,” he affirmed.
Tam also told the Canadian lawmakers that dissident prisoners receive rations that are rotten, littered with garbage or gravel, and given only up to 10 liters (about two and a half gallons) of water a day, for drinking and washing. The conditions are so poor that all of them suffer from serious illnesses like skin diseases, deterioration of their bones and diminished eyesights, he testified.
Tam says inmates of the Catholic faith are further discriminated against, by being denied religious reading materials and prohibited from praying or observing their rites.
“This is the reason there are a lot of recent hunger strikes in Vietnam’s prisons,” he told Members of Parliament. “This is their last resort to fight against the authorities. Prisoners only have their health and their bodies left as a weapon to fight.”
At other times, prison authorities weren’t so subtle. Oai recounts guards pointing their guns inside his cell, threatening to shoot him. But Oai wasn’t worried for his life. The one time he did feel pain, was for his friend, Sơn. In July 2013, they were both housed together at Nam Hà prison. In an incident documented by the human rights organization Front Line Defenders, on July 18, Sơn was brutally beaten by a prison guard because Sơn had failed to greet him.
“At around 11 that morning, they carried him back (into the jail),” Oai recounts. “When they came in, I asked what happened. They said, he fell. I said that’s impossible. I immediately took off Sơn’s clothes and counted 17 or 18 wounds.”
Oai, Sơn and two other inmates went on a hunger strike and refused to work to protest that mistreatment. In retaliation, they were placed in solitary confinement.
“I was disciplined as a warning and held separately. I was in solitary confinement for a year,” Oai says.
Dr. Sharon Shalev from the Centre for Criminology at the University of Oxford, says such a prolonged punishment is prohibited. “Indefinite solitary confinement is prohibited. Prolonged solitary confinement, which is defined longer than 15 days, so really, quite short periods of time, is prohibited,” she says.
Under the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, solitary confinement can amount to torture, Shalev says.
“Another very important factor here is the reason for placing the prisoner in solitary confinement. And certainly if the reason is political or it’s to silence dissent, that is certainly form which is absolutely prohibited. The law is very clear on that.”
Only a few months after Sơn was so severely brutalized by its state agents, in November 2013, Hà Nội signed the United Nation’s Convention Against Torture and ratified it the next year.
For Paulus Lê Văn Sơn and Nguyễn Văn Oai, and many other political prisoners, that development went unnoticed behind bars.