A prominent Vietnamese lawyer and dissident blogger detained by authorities last week has gone on a hunger strike, sources said Friday.
Le Quoc Quan began refusing food on Sunday, three days after he was arrested on his way to drop off his children at school in the Vietnamese capital Hanoi, according to a priest with the Vietnamese Redemptorist Church in Ho Chi Minh city.
"Dr. Le Quoc Quan began the hunger strike three days after being arrested by police," priest Dinh Huu Thoai told RFA's Vietnamese service.
"His wife Hien said the chief of the detention center had announced that Dr. Quan cannot receive any food sent by relatives nor eat in the prison because he started the hunger strike [nearly] a week ago," he said.
His health condition was not immediately clear as he had been on hunger strike for four days.
Quan is being held incommunicado in Hoa Lo Prison No. 1. and neither his lawyer nor his family have been able to visit him to date, according to a statement by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), which joined other rights groups in condemning his arrest.
The police apparently read out a warrant, but did not give it to Quan’s family, the two groups said. "The police told his family that he would be charged under Article 161 of the Criminal Code, which relates to tax evasion," a charge frequently used by the one-party communist state to jail and silence government critics.
If convicted, he risks three years in prison and a heavy fine.
Quan, a 41-year-old Catholic in the majority Buddhist nation, was jailed for three months in 2007 for participating in "activities to overthrow the people's government," but he was released following protests from the United States.
In August last year, Quan was beaten by police in an attack which prompted U.S.-based Human Rights Watch to call for a full investigation. Quan required hospital treatment and, following that incident, had begun carrying a golf club with him for self-defense, reports have said.
He had also complained of harassment by authorities in media interviews.
In early December, Quan told Agence France-Presse that his family was under "much pressure... It is terrible", with both his brother and a female cousin being held in detention.
In an interview with The Associated Press in September, Quan said he was under constant surveillance and that he and his family and staff received frequent warnings and pressure from authorities. But he pledged to keep speaking out against the government and in favor of multiparty democracy and freedom of speech and religion
In addition to writing his blogs, Quan was heavily involved in a string of anti-China demonstrations last year over Beijing's territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Human Rights Watch deputy director for Asia Phil Robertson said that Quan’s arrest is the latest step in a “political vendetta” waged by Vietnamese authorities.
“[They] have been pursuing a political vendetta against Le Quoc Quan for several years, and now we see a tax evasion charge coming out of nowhere, just as in the Dieu Cay case previously,” Robertson told RFA.
Outspoken Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Van Hai, also known by his pen name Dieu Cay, was jailed for two and a half years for “tax fraud” and finished his prison term in October 2010, but was immediately rearrested on charges of “conducting propaganda” against the state
He was then ordered jailed for 12 year, and last week a court in Ho Chi Minh City upheld the conviction.
Hai's case has even been raised by U.S. President Barack Obama, who said in May last year "we must not forget [journalists] like blogger Dieu Cay, whose 2008 arrest coincided with a mass crackdown on citizen journalism in Vietnam"
Harshest media controls
Vietnamese authorities have been accused by rights groups of maintaining some of the harshest media controls in Asia.
But Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has underlined his government's determination to suppress online dissent, ordering authorities to crack down on anyone using the Internet to "defame and spread propaganda against the party and state."
At least 10 bloggers and activists were convicted last year under Article 88 of Vietnam’s Criminal Code, a provision rights groups say has been used by Hanoi to silence bloggers and activists who use the Internet to promote free expression.
At least half a dozen others have been charged and are awaiting trial.
Reported by Gwen Ha for RFA's Vietnamese Service. Translated by Gwen Ha and Viet Long. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.