A Vietnamese Catholic activist was freed Thursday after serving more than three years in prison, where he said he had nearly died from a beating and had suffered repeated humiliation by guards who denied him access to the Bible.
Dau Van Duong, 26, was among four Catholic youths convicted in May 2012 of “conducting propaganda against the state” following distribution of pro-democracy leaflets.
They were punished under Article 88 of Vietnam’s penal code—a controversial provision rights groups say is often used arbitrarily to imprison bloggers, legal advocates, and other critics of the state.
Duong was ordered jailed for three and a half years but was given an early release Thursday on condition that he serve an additional 18 months of probation.
Speaking with RFA’s Vietnamese Service shortly after he returned home to Nghe An province’s Nam Dan district, Duong said he was lucky to be alive after being subjected to a vicious beating in the Nghi Kim Detention Center, where he was first incarcerated.
“When I first came to Nghi Kim [in Nghe An’s Vinh city], they let other prisoners beat me—two inmates brutally beat me from 10:00 p.m. to almost 4:00 a.m.,” he said.
“I thank God that I’m still standing here today. I might have died at that time. My body hurt terribly, but I kept praying and recovered.”
Later, Duong was transferred to Prison No. 5 in neighboring Thanh Hoa province, where he served the remainder of his jail term.
Duong said he was placed in a cell along with “drug dealers, robbers, and murderers,” though he also briefly kept quarters with other political prisoners, including members of a group convicted in January 2013 for their involvement with Viet Tan, a U.S.-based pro-democracy organization banned by the Vietnamese government.
“They were less restrictive in Prison No. 5,” he said.
“However, there were some prison guards who humiliated me. I protested and they were changed.”
But despite the relative leniency of Prison no. 5, devoutly-Catholic Duong said his Bible was confiscated by authorities and not returned to him until after he had held a week-long hunger strike and threatened to continue his protest.
A prison officer who confiscated my Bible “told me that all religious books were forbidden and that I could only get it back after I was freed.”
“He told me that even if I brought the issue to the attention of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, he couldn’t do anything about it,” Duong said, naming the officer as Dinh Cong Chien.
“I told him that he had violated my right to religious freedom—a basic right for everyone—and that I would continue my hunger strike until he returned my Bible. One day after that, the management board convened and they returned my book, so I stopped my strike.”
Duong had been in detention since August 2011, when he was arrested for passing out flyers urging the public to boycott the Nghe An People’s Council elections three months earlier, saying the electoral process did not represent the will of the people.
Electoral candidates in the country are handpicked by the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam before the vote goes to the public.
Duong’s fellow defendants Tran Huu Duc and Chu Manh Son received prison terms of three years and three months, and three years, respectively, at their May 24, 2012 trial. Duc and Son both also received at least a year of probation.
A fourth defendant, Hoang Phong, was given 18 months’ probation.
International rights groups dismissed their hearing as a sham trial, saying that they had been convicted despite a lack of evidence.
As members of the Catholic community in Vinh, the four had participated in volunteer activities including donating blood, helping orphans, and natural disaster victims, and encouraging women not to have abortions, according to international rights group Human Rights Watch.
Duc is still serving his sentence in Phu Son Prison, in northern Vietnam’s Thai Nguyen province, while Son was released in February this year.
Determined to fight
Duong told RFA that prison authorities said they had decided to release him, claiming he had been effectively “re-educated” while serving his sentence.
“In fact, I was not re-educated at all,” he said.
The activist vowed to continue his fight against injustice in society and rejoin the work of the Catholic Youth activists, as he had done before his arrest.
“I will continue those activities, even though I was arrested for them,” he said.
“I will continue to protest against any [government] wrongdoings and I will continue my charity activities with the other Catholic youth.”
Vietnam's constitution guarantees freedom of belief and religion, but religious activity is closely monitored and remains under state control.
With six million members, Catholicism is the country’s second-largest religion after Buddhism, but tensions between the community and the Hanoi government have led to unrest over church property and other issues.
Reported by An Nguyen for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.