A Vietnamese activist jailed for plotting to overthrow the government has begun a hunger strike to protest his conditions in prison, taking the cue from a fellow dissident who fasted for 25 days before the authorities relented and agreed to examine his complaint over prison abuses.
Tran Minh Nhat, a Catholic activist who received a four-year prison sentence in January for his affiliation with banned opposition party Viet Tan, started to fast after being refused reading material and subjected to harsh conditions in jail, a friend said Monday.
“Nhat said the reason he had begun a hunger strike was to protest prison conditions,” said Nguyen Thi Kim Chi, the sister-in-law of activist Nguyen Dinh Cuong, who was convicted alongside Nhat and imprisoned at Nghe An province’s Nghi Kim prison.
Nhat, who is serving a four year sentence for allegedly trying to overthrow the government and for his affiliation with Viet Tan, which Hanoi regards as a terrorist group, told Kim Chi during her visit to prison that he started his fast on June 21.
News of his hunger strike came as prominent dissident Cu Huy Ha Vu ended a 25-day hunger strike Friday after authorities agreed to examine his complaint over prison abuses, calling it a victory for justice and democracy in the one-party communist state.
Vu’s case became an international issue, with rights groups and the U.S. and several other governments calling on Hanoi to free the legal scholar and blogger.
Several prominent activists in the U.S. and Vietnam also staged their own hunger strikes in solidarity with Vu, who had complained of abuses by one of his guards that he says harmed his health and worsened his heart condition.
International rights groups have condemned Nhat’s conviction, along with 13 other Catholics, students, and bloggers, over what they see as a worrying trend of political repression in the one-party communist state.
Kim Chi said that temperatures in Nghe An were approaching 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), making life in the prison “almost unbearable.”
She added that Nhat had also wanted to draw attention to the lack of rights afforded prisoners and to the fact that prison officials had refused to allow him any books or newspapers.
Kim Chi said that she had alerted Nhat’s family members of his hunger strike.
Strike was planned
Nhat’s brother, Tran Khac Dat, said that he had visited him in prison on June 10 and was aware that he intended to fast in protest of his treatment.
“When I went to give him a few things, Nhat asked me to send some books in English and French, as well as some dictionaries and books about Catholic saints like John Paul II and Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan," Dat said.
“I said there was a chance that the prison authorities would not allow him such materials. But Nhat told me to go ahead—if they didn’t allow it, he said, they would have to sign documentation explaining why and he would ‘find a way’ to get them.”
Dat said that prison authorities had told him that Nhat was not allowed anything other than the official Tien Phong newspaper or the police newspaper.
Meanwhile, another imprisoned prominent Vietnamese dissident, lawyer Le Quoc Quan has refused food, saying he will only drink water ahead of his trial next month “to express his thanks to the people who care about him and have prayed for him.”
His brother said that Quan’s attorneys had passed on a message after meeting with him over the weekend that he would “only drink water beginning on June 23.”
“He will begin eating again on June 30, before his trial on July 9,” Le Quoc Quyet told RFA.
Quan, 41, was arrested for tax fraud in December, but rights groups believe he is being held as part of a political vendetta waged by Vietnamese authorities.
The dissident has held two separate hunger strikes since his detention last year, when he had protested his arrest and a refusal by prison authorities to allow him his Bible.
Last week, a group of 12 rights groups and NGOs sent an open letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, asking him to pressure Vietnam to release Quan during the 20th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum in Brunei on July 2, which Vietnamese officials will attend.
Reported by Gia Minh for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.