The father of a Vietnamese prisoner awaiting trial for his role in a deadly clash over land rights outside Hanoi was turned away by camp police after asking about the condition of his son, who has been on hunger strike for over 20 days, sources said on Wednesday.
Trinh Ba Khiem, father of detained activist Trinh Ba Tu, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service on Aug. 26 that he had only recently learned that his son had stopped eating.
“I am worried that my son’s life may be in danger,” the elder Trinh said.
After arriving together with 10 residents of Hanoi’s Duong Noi district on Wednesday morning at the Hoa Binh province detention camp to ask for information about his son, Trinh was turned away by camp police, who also threatened to have the group “attacked by gangsters,” Trinh said.
“Later, they told me my son’s condition is ‘normal,’ Trinh said. “But when I asked if I could meet with him, I was told that I would not be allowed to do this because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that I wouldn’t even be able to speak to him over the phone.”
“I asked them whether this was simply the communist government’s way of covering up information,” Trinh said.
Dong Tam village elder Le Dinh Kinh, 84, was shot and killed by police during the Jan. 9 raid on the village by 3,000 security officers intervening in a long-running dispute over a military airport construction site about 25 miles south of the capital.
While all land in Vietnam is ultimately held by the state, land confiscations have become a flashpoint as residents accuse the government of pushing small landholders aside in favor of lucrative real estate projects, and of paying too little in compensation.
Pressured to 'confess'
Trinh, his brother Trinh Ba Phuong, and their mother Can Thi Theu were arrested on June 24 for having been outspoken in social media postings about the Dong Tam clash. They had also openly offered information to foreign embassies and other international figures to try to raise awareness of the incident.
Commissary records at the Hoa Binh detention camp show that both the younger Trinh and his mother stopped buying food on Aug. 6, Trinh Ba Khiem said.
“My son was probably being tortured and forced to ‘confess’ to the charges against him, and so he went on a hunger strike,” the elder Trinh said, adding, “This is just my guess, though, because the communists always keep information like this very secret.”
“Even if the communists eventually kill every member of our family, we will still fight them forever and will never give in,” he said.
Hunger strikes are often the last recourse left to prisoners held in Vietnam’s jails to assert their innocence and stand up for their rights, Tran Thi Nga—a former political prisoner who was released on Jan. 10 from a nine-year prison term imposed for “spreading propaganda against the state”—told RFA on Aug. 26.
Tran, her husband, and their two sons now live in exile in Atlanta, Georgia, where she moved following her release.
The goal of the police guarding Trinh Ba Tu ahead of his trial will have been to break his spirit and force him to confess his supposed guilt, Tran said.
“Those who are locked up in closed cells have no ways left to them to resist and preserve their life. The only thing left to them is to go on hunger strike, and this may be that last step that Trinh Ba Tu has had to take,” Tran said.
Tran herself went on hunger strike twice while in prison, and was fortunate that lawyers and fellow inmates sent word of her condition to outside contacts who posted messages about her on Facebook and other social media platforms, she said.
“I believe that Trinh Bu Tu’s family and friends will also speak out for him now, and that his struggle will bring good results,” she said.
Severely damaged health
Also speaking to RFA, Nguyen Thi Hue—the sister of environmental activist Nguyen Van Hoa, now serving a seven-year prison term—said her brother had once gone on hunger strike for a shorter period than Thinh’s, severely damaging his health.
“His body was left weakened and thin, and during his 12-day hunger strike our family wasn’t informed, and we heard nothing about his condition,” she said.
Hoa, aged 22 at the time of his sentencing, was jailed by the People’s Cout of Ha Tinh in Vietnam’s coastal Nghe An province on Nov. 27, 2018 after filming protests outside the Taiwan-owned Formosa Plastics Group steel plant.
A toxic waste spill at the plant in 2016 killed an estimated 115 tons of fish and left fishermen and tourism industry workers jobless in four central provinces.
Vietnam’s already low tolerance of dissent has deteriorated sharply this year with a spate of arrests of independent journalists and publishers, as well as Facebook personalities. And activists say things are likely to get worse as authorities stifle critics in the run-up to the ruling Communist Party congress in January.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Huy Le. Written in English by Richard Finney.