Vietnamese dissident lawyer Tran Quoc Hien has fled to Thailand where he is seeking refugee status following constant harassment by security agencies at home.
The 47-year-old former political prisoner, known as an outspoken union activist, is currently in Bangkok where he awaits a decision by U.N. refugee agency UNHCR on his application for asylum.
“My defection will help me to continue the struggle for democracy and human rights in Vietnam,” Hien told RFA’s Vietnamese service.
Hien was sentenced to five years in jail for “spreading propaganda against the state” and “endangering state security” and was released in January this year on an additional two years of probation.
He was told on his release that he could not carry on his work and would not be permitted to meet with any pro-democracy activists during his probation period.
Hien expressed sadness and frustration for having to flee his home country to escape persecution but said that under current circumstances, he would be more effective overseas in fighting to bring about democracy at home.
“I think that overseas activists can still help get the word out and fight until Vietnam can be totally free, with respect for human rights and democracy,” he said.
“During my five years in prison, I didn’t have the opportunity to work. It was a waste of my time and so I decided to escape in order to continue my activism.”
Life on probation
Hien said that despite his probation conditions, he continued his activism in secret, working in defense of farmers whose land had been confiscated by the government.
In February, while on his way to visit Le Quang Liem, the head of Vietnam’s Hoa Hao Authentic Buddhist movement, Hien said he was intentionally driven off the road by public security personnel that had been assigned to monitor him.
“After that, they used every means possible to closely monitor me, especially when there are protests against China,” he said, referring to a string of recent nationalist demonstrations against Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea.
“They arranged it so as to prevent me from attending rallies. They mentally terrorized my elderly mother, telling her to keep me indoors and not allow me to participate in any outside matters. If I did not listen to them, they said they would arrest me at any time.”
In recent weeks, Hien had also lent his signature to a petition which called for an investigation into the self-immolation death of the mother of outspoken dissident blogger Ta Phong Tan.
Dang Thi Kim Lieng, 64, set herself ablaze on July 30 in front of a municipal building in her home province of Bac Lieu out of concern over her daughter’s upcoming trial on the same charges of which Hien was found guilty.
Hien, a member of the Block 8406 prodemocracy movement, said that he had felt compelled to continue his work, regardless of the risk of rearrest while on probation, because of "continued repression" in Vietnamese society.
“According to my duties and responsibilities as a citizen, I must continue to work towards making Vietnam a truly liberal democracy, as long as the country lacks human rights and the people must live with injustice,” he said.
Hien was arrested in January 2007 after he became the spokesman for the United Workers-Farmers Organization, a group he had formerly worked for as a legal consultant.
He had also drawn official ire for publishing articles online that were critical of Vietnamese authorities.
He was jailed in May 2007 after being found guilty in a four-hour trial—a ruling that was widely criticized by human rights organizations, including New York-based Human Rights Watch and London-based Amnesty International, which labeled him a prisoner of conscience.
Hien said that Vietnamese authorities have been working harder than ever to silence the voices of the country’s pro-democracy activists.
“The Vietnamese government is using every means possible to stop this, targeting democracy groups, bloggers, and anyone who voices opposition,” he said.
“They have mobilized all their resources in an attempt to prevent that.”
Reported by Gwen Ha for RFA's Vietnamese service. Translated by An Nguyen. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.