Two jailed Vietnamese online activists who backed protests against China over a territorial dispute with Hanoi in the South China Sea are being regularly harassed in prison, their relatives have said after recent visits.
Citizen journalist Ta Phong Tan, a former policewoman who has received international awards for her work, is facing abuse from her fellow inmates, while fellow dissident Ngo Hao is suffering from ill treatment to the point that he is threatening suicide, their relatives said.
Both were jailed after campaigning online in defense of Vietnam’s territorial integrity in the South China Sea and well as human rights and democracy.
They were imprisoned well before the worst anti-China protests in decades broke out in Hanoi and other key Vietnamese cities earlier this month following Beijing’s deployment of a giant oil rig in disputed waters off Vietnam’s coast.
The protests initially were allowed by the government, though it began clamping them down after they turned violent. Vietnam's authoritarian leaders usually keep a very tight grip on public gatherings for fear they could snowball into protests against the Communist leadership.
Tan, who is serving a 10-year prison sentence for “anti-government propaganda” at a jail in Thanh Hoa province, has in recent weeks faced stepped-up harassment over her advocacy of Vietnam’s claims to the disputed Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea, her sister Ta Minh Tu told RFA after visiting her on Tuesday.
Other inmates at the prison regularly curse Tan and “mentally terrorize” her, said Tu, who visits Tan every other month.
“This times [she said] they mentally terrorized her twice as much as before.”
“Now they’re doing more of it because she wore a hat that had the words Hoang Sa and Truong Sa,” the Vietnamese names for the Spratly and Paracel islands, Tan said.
“They cursed at her and took the hat away.”
Prison inmates also curse her mother, Dang Thi Kim Lieng, who burned herself to death two years ago in protest against the charges against Tan, Tu said.
“She talked about how they mentally terrorized her in prison, for example by cursing at her, and throwing stinky shrimp sauce at her.”
Tan, who was given a “Woman of Courage” award from the U.S. State Department last year, ran a blog named “Justice and Truth” and was among the first bloggers to write and comment on political news events long considered off-limits by the Vietnamese authorities until she was detained in 2011.
In 2012 she was convicted of carrying out propaganda against the government of Vietnam alongside renowned dissident blogger Nguyen Van Hai and another fellow ‘Free Journalists’ Club’ member, amid a crackdown on online dissent that Vietnamese authorities have stepped up in recent years.
Cracking under pressure
Hao, who was also jailed over his online activities, has grown much weaker over his more than a year in detention, his wife Nguyen Thi Kim Lan said.
When she visited him on Sunday in Xuan Phuoc prison in southern Vietnam’s Phu Yen province, he told her he may not survive his jail term and threatened suicide, she said.
“I’m very worried because he said they might kill him in prison,” she said.
“He said he might die in prison before his release.”
“He said sometimes he just wanted to commit suicide.”
She said Hao, a former soldier now in his mid-60s, is less than two years into a 15-year prison sentence on charges of plotting to overthrow the country’s one-party communist government.
Hao was arrested in February last year and convicted in September for writing and circulating “subversive” articles.
“He told me to go ask the lawyer why he was imprisoned when he called on people to save the Paracel and Spratly Islands,” Lan said.
“He said he was under a lot of pressure.”
Vietnamese authorities have clamped down in recent years on anti-China protests sparked by tensions over the islands.
China’s May 1 deployment of an oil rig near the Paracels sparked demonstrations by thousands of Vietnamese, which Hanoi initially allowed in a rare move widely seen as a way to amplify state anger against Beijing.
But the government backpedaled after protests turned bloody, with riots targeting Chinese business interests. Beijing says four Chinese citizens were killed in the unrest, while Hanoi says three Chinese died.
Reported by An Nguyen for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.