Prisoners of conscience on hunger strike in Vietnam
Three Lutherans and one indigenous man accused of opposing communist government and undermining national solidarity
reporter, Ho Chi Minh City
Four prisoners of conscience have been on hunger strike for over three weeks in Vietnam to protest against attempts by prison officials to coerce them into confessing to charges.
The strike started when prison officers refused to let the three Lutherans and one indigenous man buy extra food at the canteen leaving them only with meagre prison rations to eat and hoping this would force them to admit to their alleged crimes.
"My husband and three other prisoners started their hunger strike on Aug. 8," said Tran Thi Hong. Her husband, Pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh was sentenced to 11 years in jail in 2011.
The four prisoners are accused of opposing the communist government and undermining national solidarity under Article 87 of the Vietnam penal code. One of them has been sentenced to life imprisonment.
"All of them have refused to confess to their wrongful convictions even though prison officers pick on them," said Hong, a member of the Vietnamese Women for Human Rights.
Chinh is kept apart so no one can contact him. Officers order other prisoners to beat, denounce and dishonor him, Hong said.
"Chinh has not been allowed to call his family since he was arrested in April 2011," the activist said. "The officers did not even allow him to contact his family when his mother died three years ago." Prisoners have the right to call their families for five minutes per month, she said.
The imprisoned father of four is in poor health and suffers from high blood pressure and sinusitis. "I give him medicine but officers dispense it irregularly," Hong said.
The last time she saw him was on Aug. 17. "He was too weak to walk and officers had to help him into the meeting room."
Hong was herself detained, harassed and tortured by police in April and May this year after she met with a U.S. delegation on religious freedom. Chinh served as head of the Vietnam-U.S. Lutheran Alliance Church that is not approved by the communist government. The denomination draws thousands of people from ethnic minority groups in the Central Highlands.
Church members gather to pray at their homes but are often prevented by police. Hong estimated that as many as 200 Christians from local ethnic groups have been imprisoned for their faith.
Chinh has accused prison officers of repeatedly not relaying his complaints about the subhuman conditions to the proper government officials.
"He did not do anything wrong," said Hong. "He only offered pastoral services to Christians and protected them from government harassment and persecution."