Authorities in Vietnam have arrested a prominent pro-democracy activist after he called for an overthrow of the government amid a wave of uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East.
Nguyen Dan Que, 69, a doctor who runs the Non-Violent Movement for Human Rights in Vietnam, was detained in Ho Chi Minh City on Saturday for “anti-state” activities, according to the state-run Vietnam News Agency.
Police who searched Que’s residence, where he had been confined to house arrest, found 60,000 “anti-state” items on his computer’s hard drive, the news agency said.
Que’s brother Nguyen Quoc Quan, who lives in Virginia, said in an interview Sunday that he had been notified of the arrest shortly after it occurred.
“Police surrounded his house and about 20 people went inside to search the whole place. They took one cell phone and a computer,” Quan said.
“They also questioned Doctor Que about whether he was the author of a letter calling for people to take to the street to fight against the communist government—to establish a new democratic government in Vietnam.”
Que admitted to authoring the letter, which referred to the “Jasmine Revolution” in Tunisia that triggered uprisings elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East, and was informed by the police that it was illegal to call for an overthrow of the government.
“[Que] said that because the government controls the media, the only way to express our demands is to take to the street peacefully. He said that to do so was not illegal, but that to arrest him would be illegal,” his brother said.
Quan said the police forced his brother to sign a document acknowledging what he had told them and then took him to the city’s fifth district police station.
Later that evening, he said, police returned to the house and seized the computer of Que’s wife, Tam Van.
On Sunday Tam Van told RFA in an interview that authorities had been questioning Que to the point of exhaustion.
“They are still working on his case … he was very tired. He has a lot of health problems, including high blood pressure, kidney stones, and ulcers … I informed [the authorities] of his health condition,” she said.
Calls to the police station went unanswered, but the Vietnam News Agency quoted police as saying that Que's actions were “very dangerous” and “directly threaten[ing] the stability and strength of the people's administration."
Authorities in the one-party Communist state do not tolerate political dissent and frequently crack down on any calls for reform or a multiparty system.
Que has often spoken out about the need for democracy and human rights accountability in Vietnam and has paid the price for his beliefs, spending a total of 20 years in prison or under house arrest on three separate occasions since 1978.
In a Feb. 2 interview, Que told RFA that Vietnamese activists had been inspired by the recent overthrow of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East following massive popular uprisings.
“The democracy movement is now a global trend. We are following that trend, which means we have support coming from this movement. The opportunities lie in the hands of Vietnam’s activists,” Que said.
In the interview he said government mismanagement of foreign investment in the country had led to a growing gap between the rich and the poor.
“The people are unhappy, and on top of it, we have a global movement plus the development of technology like the Internet, cell phones, social networking like Twitter and Facebook.”
“The democracy movement [in Vietnam] does not need to follow the old path … right now we have a lot of opportunities.”
Agence France Presse said it had also obtained a recent communique from Que calling on Vietnam’s youth to "take to the streets to dismantle the Politburo!" and to “assemble for demonstrations” in order to “take advantage of the democracy movements in Africa and the Middle East."
Call for release
Donna Guest, deputy director of the London-based Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific group, said the organization was “shocked” to learn that Que had been arrested again, and noted that the activist could face between five years to life imprisonment, or even death, for “overthrowing” the state, according to Vietnam’s penal code.
She called for his immediate release and said it was “no coincidence” that Que’s arrest came on the same day an article he wrote that was critical of Vietnam’s human rights record was published in the Washington Post.
In the Washington Post article, Que condemned Vietnamese authorities for a January attack on a U.S. diplomat who was attempting to visit another high-profile dissident who had recently been released from prison.
Que spent nearly 20 years in jail for calling for democracy before he was finally granted an amnesty in 1998. In July 2004, he was sentenced to 30 months in prison after writing an essay about censorship and the media, but was released after serving only seven months.
Reported by Thanh Quang, Mac Lam, and Gia Minh for RFA’s Vietnamese service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.