Five Vietnamese activists have refused to sign testimonies they gave to police on Tuesday over charges faced by a prominent Vietnamese blogger on hunger strike in jail, claiming their statements were fabricated to implicate the blogger.
The five had been brought in for questioning by Lap Vo district police in southern Vietnam’s Dong Thap province and told to make statements about events related to the detention of blogger Bui Thi Minh Hang.
Hang and another blogger Nguyen Thi Thuy Quynh and follower of the Hoa Hao Buddhist sect Nguyen Van Minh are in detention facing charges of “disturbing the public order” and “obstructing traffic,” and have been on a hunger strike for nearly a month to protest their arrest, with family members expressing concern over their health.
Hang’s lawyer said the authorities had forced the five activists—Phan Duc Phuoc, Nguyen Vu Tam, To Van Manh, Bui Thi Diem Thuy and Do Thi Thuy Trang—to incriminate Hang by providing testimony to support the charges against her and by fabricating parts of their statements.
“I know this is against the law,” lawyer Tran Nhu Nam told RFA’s Vietnamese Service, pointing out that Vietnam’s penal code forbids any kind of coerced testimony.
“This not only violates the law but also show us that there is some sort of conspiracy against the defendants. We anticipated this though, and fortunately none of the witnesses signed any papers … [so] there is no evidence on record.”
Nam said that he was considering lodging a complaint against the investigating officers.
Hang and the five activists were among a group of 21 taken into custody on Feb. 11 while on their way to visit the home of rights lawyer Nguyen Bac Truyen’s wife in Dong Thap two days after Truyen was taken into custody in a massive police operation.
The other 18 were released a day after the February detention, which rights groups say was part of a widening crackdown on dissent in the one-party communist state.
Nam said he was awaiting official approval from authorities to represent Hang and was unsure of her current situation in detention.
Four of the five activists interrogated by police on Tuesday confirmed that they had been “forced to say what [police] wanted” and said that some of their testimonies had been made up by the authorities.
Phuoc said that he told Major Nguyen Hung Dung who questioned him at the Lap Vo police station that the activists traveling to Truyen’s wife’s home on Feb. 11 had fully observed the traffic laws and that the authorities had no reason to stop them.
He said that 500 to 600 people in plain clothes and holding sticks had blocked the group’s path and demanded to search their belongings, but that Hang had refused and was threatened with bodily harm by one of the men who identified himself as a police officer.
“They ganged up on her, trying to take her stuff while she shouted, ‘You are robbers, not policemen, because policemen do not rob people’,” Phuoc said.
“He [Dung] listened to what I said but did not write it down. Instead, he wrote what he wanted—that Hang was disturbing public order. Then he wrote that I had told the truth and did not provide any more details, and that I took full responsibility for my words before the law,” he said.
“I wrote that this was not what I had said and would not sign it.”
Manh said that he had told authorities during his interrogation that the police had ordered Hang beaten up during the traffic stop in February.
“After that, they told me to sign the paper, but I insisted on having two copies so that they could keep one and I could keep the other. I also wanted my grandchild to have a look at both of the copies to check whether there were any discrepancies before I signed,” he said.
“They tried to force me to sign, but I said no.”
Trang said she had told officers during her questioning that assailants had hidden in the bushes on either side of the street to ambush the activists, before setting upon them and beating them.
“But the investigators did not write what I said—they wrote what they wanted. They asked me if people had grouped together and caused a traffic jam and I said I didn’t know,” she said.
“He then wrote there was a gathering, with some people shouting on the street and trying to assault policemen, but I told them that wasn’t what I saw. They didn’t write down what I said, so I wouldn’t sign the paper.”
Tam said authorities refused to write down that the police had attacked the group and would only write information about Hang.
“They told me to sign the paper, but I would not sign because it was not what I told them,” he said.
“They wrote it in a way to slap some accusations on Hang.”
Bui Thi Kim Phuong, the wife of detained Hoa Hao Buddhist follower Nguyen Van Minh, said that she was also briefly brought in for questioning on Tuesday.
“In the beginning they wrote what I said, but at the end they wrote [that we had caused a] traffic jam, so I did not sign because it was incorrect—I didn’t say anything about a traffic jam,” she said.
“They told me it was in my best interest to sign the paper … [but] the truth is that they want to force Hang to admit to something she did not do.”
Family members told RFA last week that the authorities had not provided an official order of Hang’s arrest, issuing only “temporary detention” notices so far, and that several attempts to visit her had been rejected by district and provincial police because her case, and that of the other two detainees, is “still under investigation.”
They said that they had heard Hang could face anywhere from three months to three years in prison if convicted, though they could not confirm the charges against her.
The three detainees have been on a hunger strike since they were held and their relatives have expressed concern for their condition.
Last week, Hang’s daughter Anh posted an open letter online calling on the international community to pressure the Vietnamese government for her mother’s release, saying that the police had arrested her mother “to stop her activities” as part of a “calculated plot” against her.
Her letter follows an incident in late February during which Truyen and Phuong were dragged from a taxi and beaten by suspected police agents while traveling to meet with an Australian diplomat in Hanoi to press for the release of the three activists.
Reported by Mac Lam for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.