One of Vietnam’s most prominent jailed dissidents, Nguyen Van Hai, is weak and unable to sit up by himself one month into a hunger strike he is staging to protest the actions of prison officials who tried to force him to make a false confession, according to his family.
Hai, who is also know by his pen name Dieu Cay, reached the 30th day of the hunger strike on Monday at Prison No. 6 in Nghe An province, where he had been held in solitary confinement for refusing to sign a statement admitting guilt to offenses he says he did not commit.
Hai’s son Nguyen Tri Dung, who was allowed a brief visit with his father on Saturday, said the hunger strike has left the 61-year-old blogger feeble and in nearly unrecognizable condition.
Hai’s ex-wife Duong Thi Tan said Dung had told her Hai was too weak to sit up by himself.
“Hai could not sit upright,” she told RFA’s Vietnamese Service. “He had to rest his head on his two hands so that he could keep his head up to look at his son.”
“[Dung] told me, ‘Mom, I could not recognize him.’ I was so sad to hear him describing his father’s situation this way,” said Tan, who was refused permission to visit Hai when she went with Dung to the prison.
Hai was handed a 12-year prison sentence for conducting anti-state propaganda in September last year amid a crackdown on bloggers in the one-party state after his online articles slammed communist rule and highlighted alleged abuses by the authorities.
His case has been adopted by the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and raised by U.S. President Barack Obama, whose administration has called on Hanoi to release all political prisoners in Vietnam.
At the trial in Nghe An, Hai, who had previously been jailed for tax evasion, pleaded not guilty to the charges of “conducting propaganda against the state” in articles he had written as a founding member of the “Free Journalists’ Club” website.
His last appeal was turned down in December and authorities have repeatedly transferred him from one prison to another.
Refusing to sign
Tan said Hai started his hunger strike after authorities at Prison No. 6 tried to force him to sign documents confessing guilt in the charges for which he was convicted.
“The reason for this hunger strike is that they told Hai to sign a paper pleading guilty, and he did not sign it,” Tan said.
Prison officials put Hai in solitary confinement for three months as punishment for his refusal, according to Tan.
Hai protested the decision in official complaints to provincial judicial authorities, including in a letter sent to the Nghe An Supreme People’s Procuracy. But he received no response to the petitions, prompting him to go on hunger strike, she said.
She said the aim of his strike was “to ask for his legitimate rights and protest wrongdoing by authorities at Prison No. 6.”
During their trip to the prison, Dung was asked to sign documents promising to encourage Hai to obey prison staff members’ instructions.
“I said I could sign a hundred papers promising to follow the law, but not any promising to follow those requests from the prison,” Dung told RFA on Saturday, speaking in a phone interview that was cut off abruptly after he explained “plainclothesmen” had threatened him.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said Monday it is “seriously concerned” about Hai’s health, calling for his release and urging authorities to stop any “abusive and discriminatory treatment” towards him.
“It’s imperative that the government should publicly commit to Dieu Cay and his family that it will end such treatment, fully investigate who is responsible at Prison No. 6, and hold them accountable,” HRW’s Asia deputy director Phil Robertson said.
“The government should also immediately release Dieu Cay without conditions, along with other prisoners held for exercising their rights to express their views and peacefully act on their beliefs.”
HRW urged Obama to raise human rights issues including Hai’s case during a summit with Vietnam’s President Nguyen scheduled for Thursday.
Obama spoke publicly about Hai’s case last year in a speech marking World Press Freedom Day, saying Hai’s arrest “coincided with a mass crackdown on citizen journalism in Vietnam."
Hai previously went on a hunger strike that lasted for 29 days in 2011.
Tan, who was also barred from visiting Hai on an earlier attempt this month, was informed of his current hunger strike last week after one of Hai’s inmates, political prisoner writer Nguyen Xuan Nghia, shouted the information to his wife during their visit before prison guards dragged him away.
His hunger strike follows fasting protests held last month by two other dissidents— rights lawyer Cu Huy Ha Vu and Catholic activist Tran Minh Nhat—over what they said was inhumane treatment in prison.
Earlier this month, prisoners in the Xuan Loc jail in Dong Nai province, one of the country’s main facilities for political prisoners, rioted over jail conditions.
Reported by An Nguyen for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.