Interview: 'They Are Very Sick But The Illness Cannot Be Treated With Medicine'

Nguyen Ngoc Gia, released from prison on December 27, 2017, describes his treatment in jail but vows to keep on writing.

Protesters rally in support of dissident bloggers on trial in the People's Court in Hanoi, March 23, 2016.

Former Vietnamese political prisoner Nguyen Dinh Ngoc, who blogs under the name Nguyen Ngoc Gia, was released from prison on December 27, 2017 from a sentence of three years in prison and three years of house arrest for allegedly spreading propaganda against the state under Article 88, a provision the government often uses to silence critics. He spoke to RFA’s Vietnamese Service about his experience in jail.

RFA: Why do you call yourself a “human rights prisoner”?

Nguyen Ngoc Gia: I call myself a “human rights prisoner” because all I have done is exercise my human rights, but because of that, I was wrongfully sentenced to three years imprisonment and three years of house arrest. The concept of “prisoner of conscience” has been around for about 60 years. In my opinion, prisoners of conscience are of limited scope, not only including those arrested under Articles 88, 258 or 79, but also those who are arrested for exercising their human rights. I think all of those who have been exercising their human rights should be called human rights prisoners. Further, there are others who can claim to be fighting for human rights. Those who have been accused of tax evasion, acting against officers on duty, or those accused of causing public disorder, but who were in fact only exercising their human rights according to both international and domestic public opinion. That’s why I suggest you call us human rights prisoners. I want to assert once again that I am not acting against the State. I only exercise human rights in accordance with the Constitution, laws and all international conventions to which Vietnam is party.

RFA: From your arrest to your release, there was no mention about you being allowed to leave detention. Can you share with us what you did during your time in detention?

While being interrogated in the beginning of August 2015, a police officer suddenly asked me to think of my family and plead guilty. I said calmly to him that I have fully completed my fatherly responsibilities; that I live for democracy and I will never be an imposition on my children. Until August 25, 2015, the visitor log was brought in for me through the small hole on the wall. I was startled when I saw the writing and signature of my youngest son. I was so happy and anxious, I wept. It was the first and last time after eight months of imprisonment I saw his handwriting and signature. Then, my son died three days later. The next day, the guard informed me about his death. I will never forget that terrible day when I was told the heartbreaking news in such a cruel and emotionless way. Then, I offered to plead guilty, hoping to be allowed to go home to observe the 100th day after his death, but they did not allow me to go. When the investigation period was over, they still did not let me meet my family.

RFA: Former prisoners of conscience have revealed the truth about Vietnamese prisons. What can you say from your own experience?

I remember blogger Dieu Cay once said: “Any prison in Vietnam is evil, but the one in Cai Tau, Ca Mau, is the "animal prison". For me, I have to say that each prison is different but the cruelty is equal. I saw with my own eyes the hard labor, I witnessed the miserable and dangerous tasks of prisoners who had to carry huge ice blocks up to the fourth floor every day. Sometimes the ice fell, causing bruises on their feet and nails which sometimes festered. They were also barbarically beaten by a number of guards. The police would drag them into a corner out of the camera coverage area to beat them. I remember on the afternoon of May 22, 2016, a group of five or six police used batons and took turns to beat a boy brutally. I clearly remember that day because it was parliamentary election day. From my cell, I witnessed many other brutal beatings when prisoners were caught smoking. The detention center where I was held looks like an extremely quiet cemetery. Sometimes we could hear the echo from far away when people were reading the bible for someone who had just died. This always frightened the prisoners. We dared not breathe loudly, laugh or make jokes with each other. Being depressed for years causes kidney, heart, and eye diseases, stomach pain, tooth loss, chronic headaches, arthritis, and more. I think what threatens the survival of this regime is not only corruption—as Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong acknowledges—but also the human rights abuses of illegal arrest and inhumane execution, and the issue of the South China Sea.

RFA: Since the congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam in early 2016 and the early months of 2017, Vietnamese authorities have conducted a strong crackdown on dissidents, voices of opposition, and activists for human rights and democracy. Some have been given lengthy sentences on charges of spreading propaganda against the State and acting with the intention to overthrow the people's government.  What do you think about these measures?

As many have said, the increased imprisonment reflects the words of Marx: "Where there is oppression, there is struggle." The more you fight, the more imprisonment you will get -- that is the rule. Naturally, no one wants to be imprisoned, but the Communist Party of Vietnam has few options other than imprisonment, harassment, and various means of oppression. The CPV is in a very difficult situation, like they are very sick but the illness cannot be treated with medicine. Therefore, I feel like they are in something of a "political deadlock" right now.

RFA: It is 2018. A new year has just started. Do you have anything that you want to share with our audience?

I write with my conscience based on three principles: truth, law and persistence. Perhaps that is why my readers love me. We can "trick" readers with a few writings, but we cannot lie to them with hundreds of them. I only write with these three principles in mind and never disseminate hatred, promote violence, or distort the truth.

Translated by Emily Peyman.