One of Vietnam’s most prominent jailed dissidents, blogger Nguyen Van Hai, has gone on a hunger strike amid concerns over his prison treatment, his ex-wife said Wednesday, highlighting a trend of fasting protests by political prisoners in the one-party Communist state.
Hai, popularly known by his pen name Dieu Cay, has gone on the hunger protest for 25 days and has been “disciplined” by the prison authorities for “disturbing” order, Duong Thi Tan told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
Hai is serving a 12-year jail sentence from September for “conducting propaganda against the state” after his online articles slammed communist rule and highlighted alleged abuses by the authorities.
Tan said that she had been informed of Hai’s hunger strike after she had gone to see him at the No. 6 Prison in Nghe An province in Vietnam’s north central coast but was refused permission to meet with him.
In recent weeks, a number of Vietnamese political prisoners have held hunger strikes to protest harsh conditions in jail, including prominent dissident Cu Huy Ha Vu and Catholic activist Tran Minh Nhat.
Tan said that she learned of Hai’s hunger strike after receiving a phone call from Nguyen Thi Nga, the wife of Nguyen Xuan Nghia, who is a fellow inmate of Hai’s. Nga had been to see her husband earlier that day.
“After the meeting, which lasted about 30 minutes and was under police monitor … [Nghia] told her that Hai has been on a hunger strike for 25 days,” she said.
“After he said that, the police gagged [Nghia’s] mouth and took him away.”
Tan said that Nga was held briefly while prison authorities drew up a document saying that she had violated the law for speaking with her husband about Hai.
“Everything happened so fast and [Nga] was shocked to hear that Hai was on a hunger strike for 25 days,” she said.
Nga did not know why Hai had decided to fast, or whether he had been force fed by authorities or was taking water.
According to Tan, Hai had gone on a hunger strike for 29 days in 2011 as well.
Tan and the couple’s son Nguyen Tri Dung had earlier on Wednesday been refused permission to see Hai at Prison No. 6 by authorities who told them he was “being disciplined for disturbing order” in the facility.
“They let me in [to the office], but told me that he was being disciplined and during this time he would not be allowed to see family members,” she said.
“I asked them about the reason for the discipline and the starting date. They said he ‘disturbed prison order’ and was being disciplined for a week.”
Tan, who is from Ho Chi Minh City, then told her son to find a place to stay until Saturday—the next time they could visit Hai.
“But [the authorities] said they were not sure [if we could see him then]. This time definitely not, but they were not sure about next time either,” she said.
Hai, who suffers from health problems, has been held at 10 different prison camps since his arrest in October 2008 and his case has been “adopted” by the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. His family has complained that he has not received sufficient medical treatment while incarcerated.
An outspoken blogger who co-founded the “Free Journalists Club Website,” Hai was first detained after participating in anti-China protests ahead of the Beijing Olympics and served 30 months in jail on tax evasion charges critics have said were trumped up.
Upon his scheduled release in 2010, he was immediately rearrested on “antigovernment propaganda” charges for hundreds of articles he had written online along with two other members of the website.
The three were convicted under Article 88 of the country’s criminal code, a controversial provision rights groups say the government has used to silence online dissent.
Hai's case has been raised by U.S. President Barack Obama, who said in May last year "we must not forget [journalists] like blogger Dieu Cay, whose 2008 arrest coincided with a mass crackdown on citizen journalism in Vietnam."
Hai’s hunger strike follows fasting protests held by two other jailed activists last month over what they said was inhumane treatment in prison.
In June, Tran Minh Nhat, who received a four-year prison sentence in January for his affiliation with banned opposition party Viet Tan, had fasted for several days after being refused reading material and subjected to harsh conditions in jail. Nhat is also imprisoned in Nghe An province.
News of his hunger strike came as prominent dissident Cu Huy Ha Vu ended a 25-day hunger strike after authorities agreed to examine his complaint over prison abuses, calling it a victory for justice and democracy in Vietnam.
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.
Reported by Mac Lam for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.