BANGKOK—A prominent Vietnamese activist is still defiant after serving three years in jail for crimes against the state, insisting he committed no crime.
Nguyen Ngoc Quang, 48 and and interior designer from Ho Chi Minh City, said his release didn't represent any progress made to reform Vietnam’s political system or censorship laws.
“I, Ngoc Quang, am not free, because I have come out of a small prison only to enter a bigger one,” Quang said.
“I’m still subject to two years’ probation. In two years, if the government of Vietnam does not change their system, then the whole country will become a prison,” he added.
A member of Bloc 8406, a coalition of political groups calling for democratic reform in Vietnam, Quang was released Sept. 3 after serving three years for “spreading propaganda” under Article 88 of Vietnam’s penal code.
Bloc 8406 draws its name from the date, April 8, 2006, that its Manifesto for Freedom and Democracy was signed by 118 dissidents calling for a multiparty state.
Quang insisted that he committed no crime.
“I testified at my trial that I was proud of and open about my activities. Therefore I committed no crime,” Quang said.
“If they want ‘amnesty’ from me, then I will grant it, but I won’t ask for any clemency from them, because they arrested me illegally…They issued an urgent summons order to legalize their illegal arrest,” he said.
‘Debating is endless’
Quang was originally arrested in June 2006 and subjected to several interrogation sessions related to his membership in Bloc 8406.
Following a second round of interrogations by security police in early August, recordings of the sessions were posted on the Internet.
While the recordings shed light on the harsh treatment Quang received at the hands of Vietnam’s Public Security Bureau, they also drew the ire of the authorities, who targeted Quang in connection with the recordings’ release.
Quang has denied making the recordings and has said that police thoroughly searched his person before all of the interrogation sessions, making it impossible for him to have brought in a recording device.
During the interrogation an unnamed security officer tells Quang that to form an organization is a “violation of the law.”
“I must tell you that it is unconstitutional. Being unconstitutional is extremely dangerous,” the security officer says in the recording.
The officer tells Quang to “admit that what you have done is wrong” and to “admit that it is against the Constitution.”
The officer then tells Quang that he has “no time” and “no obligation” to debate freedom, democracy, or Vietnam’s one-party system, and that Quang should write down his frustrations and file them as an official complaint with the ruling Communist Party.
“But I must tell you that debating takes a lifetime. It is, in fact, endless,” the officer added.
On Sept. 2, 2006, Quang was arrested by public security officers after meeting with fellow Bloc 8406 members Pham Ba Hai and Le Tri Tue as he waited to take a bus from Vietnam’s central Hue city to Quang Tri in the north to see his family.
He was detained in Ho Chi Minh’s B34 Prison without charges until his trial on April 24, 2008 when he was finally sentenced for “spreading propaganda.”
Quang said that during his time in prison he was kept with others classified as “political prisoners.”
“Vietnam says they don’t have so-called ‘political prisoners’ but, in fact, they do. The label on our food that they delivered everyday said ‘political section,’” Quang said.
Quang said political prisoners were barred from contact with the other prisoners and suffered discrimination.
“We didn't have the right to study. They didn't let us have any books sent from outside, or join any of the cultural or sport activities,” Quang said.
“We were mentally terrorized. They used gangsters to keep us in line. Our letters to our families were read and censored. Our families didn't receive our letters because [the prison security] trashed them all,” he said.
Quang said he was kept with another 14 prisoners in a small cell only 42 square meters and 3.5 meters high, with only four small windows.
He said the cell was extremely warm and stifling, but the prisoners weren't allowed outside.
Vietnamese authorities are targeting democracy activists in an ongoing crackdown on dissent.
Five men—Le Cong Dinh, Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, Tran Anh Kim, Le Thang Long, and Nguyen Tien Trung—are currently awaiting trial for offenses connected mainly to sending e-mails and writing articles online criticizing government policies.
Vietnam's official news agency reported Aug. 20 that the Investigation Security Agency of the Ministry of Public Security was working with prosecutors "to quickly bring to trial" what it called "an extremely serious case related to infringing upon national security."
It said the defendants had "acted in an organized way in an attempt to undermine and overthrow the Vietnamese State. They had linkages with exile reactionary organizations and received support from hostile, anti-Vietnamese forces."
Vietnamese authorities have meanwhile detained two well-known bloggers who have criticized the government.
Thanh Hieu, who writes his blog under the pen name "Nguoi Buon Gio" or "Wind Trader," was taken into police custody in Hanoi on Aug. 27, associates said.
Police seized three laptops and documents from his home in Hanoi and also searched his parents' house before releasing him Sept. 5 ahead of a visit to Australia and New Zealand by Communist Party chief Nong Duc Manh, who has faced protests and pressure over human rights.
Days before Thanh Hieu’s arrest, one of Vietnam's most popular and boldest bloggers, Huy Duc, was fired by the Saigon Tiep Thi (in English, Marketing) newspaper after the Communist Party complained about writings on his blog, "Osin."
Original reporting by RFA’s Vietnamese service. Vietnamese service director: Diem Nguyen. Translated by Hanh Seide. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.