Jailed Vietnamese rights lawyer Le Quoc Quan has launched a hunger strike to protest the refusal by prison authorities to provide him access to legal and religious books, and to a priest for spiritual guidance, ahead of his appeal trial this month, his brother said Friday.
Quan informed his family that he began the fast this week when they met with him for about half an hour on Friday at the Hoa Lo No. 1 Prison in Hanoi, his brother Le Quoc Quyet told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
He has been serving a 30-month sentence on tax evasion charges since October.
“Quan said he had begun a hunger strike on Feb. 2 because he asked for law books to study in preparation for his upcoming appeal during which he will defend himself, a Bible to read, and to meet with a priest for religious rites,” Quyet said, adding that his brother had not seen a priest since he was detained in December 2012.
Quyet said his brother also complained that he had been denied writing instruments by prison authorities.
“Quan said he will continue his hunger strike until the [Feb. 18] appeal. If he deems the appeal a show trial to legitimize the unjust sentence from the lower court, he will go on another hunger strike,” he said.
Quyet did not provide details about his brother’s health condition.
International rights groups have contended that the tax evasion charges are part of a government campaign to silence Quan, a prominent Catholic blogger and activist who had defended victims of religious persecution and written critically of the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party online.
Quan had rejected the charges at his trial last year, saying they were part of a political vendetta against him and vowing to continue his fight against corruption.
Quyet said Friday that his family had only heard about Quan’s hunger strike a day earlier through one of the activist’s fellow inmates.
“We heard that he was on a hunger strike but we didn’t know when he had started. Yesterday afternoon we contacted the prison authorities to ask for a visit, but they said Quan was being disciplined so we could not see him,” he said.
Quan’s family members requested that the authorities provide them with a written explanation of why they could not see him because, according to prison regulations, they are allowed one visit per month.
That evening, the prison authorities agreed to meet with Quan’s family.
“They confirmed that the hunger strike news was true, but told us that a petition to visit him would have to be granted by the ‘upper level,’" Quyet said.
“We had already talked to the highest authority of the prison, so we didn’t know what they meant by ‘upper level.’”
Quyet said that later that night, the prison granted family members the right to see Quan on Friday.
Quan’s jailing has drawn “deep concern” from the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi and strong condemnation from rights groups, who said the outspoken lawyer had been targeted for his activism.
Quan was previously first jailed for three months in 2007 for "activities to overthrow the people's government" after he returned from an American government funded-fellowship in Washington.
Hundreds of supporters were barred from attending his trial in October last year, which had been scheduled to take place in July but was abruptly postponed due to the judge’s illness.
A week before the trial took place, Quyet was beaten and briefly detained in a police swoop on a dinner party with fellow activists.
Family members were denied the right to visit Quan for nearly a year following his detention and only granted a once-a-month visit after his trial had concluded.
Quan’s hunger strike is the first by a jailed prominent Vietnamese dissident since legal expert Cu Huy Ha Vu held a similar protest against the seizure of artwork he had drawn in prison in October.
Earlier, in June, Vu had staged a 25-day hunger strike after prison officials failed to respond to his complaints about detention conditions, in particular abuses by one of his guards that he says harmed his health and worsened his heart condition.
His action led several prominent activists in the U.S. and Vietnam to stage their own hunger strikes in solidarity.
Vu’s case has prompted calls for his release by the U.S. government, as well as global rights groups and bloggers inside Vietnam.
He and Quan are among dozens of dissidents and bloggers who have been thrown in jail since the one-party communist state stepped up a crackdown more than three years ago.
Reported by Hoa Ai for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.