Inmates in Vietnam seized a prison for several hours at the weekend, taking the facility’s chief hostage to demand better conditions, sources said Monday, amid concerns by activists over inhumane treatment in the country’s penal system.
A riot involving dozens of inmates broke out at camp No. 1 (K1) of the Z30A Xuan Loc Prison in Dong Nai province early on Sunday, according to former prisoner and pro-democracy activist Le Thang Long, who said he had spoken with a source at the jail during the unrest.
After taking control of the camp, inmates broke down the doors to the main office and took supervisor Lieutenant Colonel Ho Phi Thang hostage, demanding an end to abuses committed by prison guards, he told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
“At about 7:00 or 8:00 a.m., prisoners revolted and took the supervisor of Z30A, Ho Phi Thang, as a hostage,” Long said.
“The reason was ill-treatment in the prison—prisoners are harassed, their food rations are cut and their basic requests are not granted.”
In recent weeks, a number of Vietnamese political prisoners have held hunger strikes to protest harsh conditions in jail, including prominent dissident Cu Huy Ha Vu and Catholic activist Tran Minh Nhat.
According to the state-run Thanh Nien daily, the riot began when a group of prisoners were playing soccer in a detention area and inmates Pham Van Tri and Pham Ngoc Huong began “screaming” and throwing rocks towards a gate where guards were standing nearby.
When the prisoners were being returned to their cells, it said, inmate Nguyen Van Tan allegedly attacked a prison guard, First Lieutenant Nguyen Van Tuan, with a rock and “a homemade club,” injuring him.
Nearly 70 prisoners then broke into the office and took Thang hostage, demanding that guards leave the detention area before barricading themselves inside, armed with “kitchen utensils as weapons.”
Reinforcements were sent to the prison on Sunday afternoon under Lieutenant General Ho Thanh Dinh to monitor the situation and negotiate with prisoners, the newspaper said. By the end of the day Thang was released unharmed and the situation was returned to normal.
“While being kept hostage, I was not threatened or harassed,” Thanh Nien quoted Thang as saying.
It was unclear whether any of the prisoner’s demands had been met or how authorities regained control of the jail.
Authorities said that around 40 prisoners led the unrest and would be “punished in accordance with the law.” Thanh Nien did not say whether political prisoners were among those identified as the ringleaders.
But in a statement to Agence France-Presse, overseas dissident group the People's Democratic Party of Vietnam—which is banned in one-party communist Vietnam—said the riots were organized by political prisoners “to protest the inhumane treatment.”
Abuse in prison
Le Thang Long, who was released from Xuan Loc in June 2012 after serving three years for allegedly trying to overthrow the state, said several political prisoners, including internet entrepreneur and activist Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, dissident songwriter Viet Khang and labor activist Nguyen Hoang Quoc Hung, are held in the jail.
Guards at the prison’s K1 detention area, with some 1,000 inmates, subject them to harsh treatment to break their spirits and force them to confess to crimes, he said by telephone from Ho Chi Minh City, where he is currently under house arrest.
“When I was there … I could not meet with my family or my lawyer—basic rights that were not met. They said it was due to the national security. I think they used ambiguous national security excuses to limit our rights,” he said.
“They also exert pressure on prisoners. For example, they kept Tran Huynh Duy Thuc in a closed cell that had little air for him to breathe. When one is first sent to the prison, authorities set conditions such as forcing a person to confess guilt in order to see their family or have their sentence reduced.”
Last week, Tran Minh Nhat, who received a four-year prison sentence in January for his affiliation with banned opposition party Viet Tan, started to fast after being refused reading material and subjected to harsh conditions in jail.
News of his hunger strike came as prominent dissident Cu Huy Ha Vu ended a 25-day hunger strike Friday after authorities agreed to examine his complaint over prison abuses, calling it a victory for justice and democracy in Vietnam.
Vu’s case became an international issue, with rights groups and the U.S. and several other governments calling on Hanoi to free the legal scholar and blogger.
Several prominent activists in the U.S. and Vietnam also staged their own hunger strikes in solidarity with Vu, who had complained of abuses by one of his guards that he says harmed his health and worsened his heart condition.
The daughter of poet Nguyen Huu Cau, who is serving a life sentence for “sabotage” in Xuan Loc over his writings that exposed corruption by Communist Party officials, has raised concerns about inadequate medical care at the facility.
Cau is nearly blind and mostly deaf and has complained of low blood flow to the brain while he suffers from a heart condition.
Reported by Gia Minh for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.