The relatives of more than 30 political prisoners in Vietnam have penned an open letter to the country’s leaders pleading for the release of their loved ones, who they say are at serious risk of contracting the coronavirus due to poor conditions in jail.
“Amid fears over COVID-19 [the disease caused by the coronavirus], we—the relatives of political prisoners—call on Vietnam’s leaders to release the detainees so that they can avoid infection,” said the letter, dated April 14.
“Due to the outbreak over the last several months, the family members of political prisoners have been unable to visit with them. We are worried that the bad conditions in prison can affect the health of prisoners, leaving them more susceptible to the virus.”
In the letter, the relatives warned that the reputation of Vietnam’s government—and particularly Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc—would be “tarnished in the eyes of the international community” if any political prisoners die as a result of becoming infected in detention.
The petition follows similar calls from groups including New York-based media watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), California’s Vietnam Human Rights Network (VNHRN), Vietnam-based blogger organization Defend the Defenders, and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) for Hanoi to release prisoners deemed not to be a risk to society from Vietnam’s jails.
Nguyen Thi Lanh, the wife of Nguyen Trung Ton—a pastor serving a 12-year prison sentence in Gia Lai province’s Gia Trung Prison for his involvement with the Brotherhood for Democracy—told RFA’s Vietnamese Service Wednesday that she has been extremely concerned for her husband’s well-being since prison visits were suspended in early March.
“I am worried because the conditions in jail are not safe for the health of the prisoners and sick prisoners aren’t being examined,” she said.
“My husband is very sick, but I can’t send him anything or visit him.”
In August last year, Lanh told RFA that her husband's health condition had deteriorated because he was beaten before his arrest and the detention center did not allow him to seek a medical examination and treatment.
Ton was arrested in July 2017 on charges of "attempting to overthrow the people's government" and was sentenced to 12 years in prison and three years of probation in April 2018.
Estimates of the number of prisoners of conscience now held in Vietnam’s jails vary widely. New York-based Human Rights Watch said that authorities held 138 political prisoners as of October 2019, while Defend the Defenders has suggested that at least 240 are in detention, with 36 convicted last year alone.
Prime Minister Phuc said Wednesday that he was extending a March 31 directive aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus by requiring people to stay home except for emergencies and to buy food at least until April 22, and possibly longer.
As of April 15, Vietnam had confirmed 267 cases of COVID-19 infection.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Huy Le. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.