Freed activist vows to continue fight against illegal toll booths

Dang Thi Hue spent 39 months in prison for her part in a Hanoi protest.
By RFA Vietnamese
2023.01.22
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Freed activist vows to continue fight against illegal toll booths Dang Thi Hue, also known as Hue Nhu, before her arrest in 2019.
Facebook: Hue Nhu

Former prisoner of conscience Dang Thi Hue plans to continue her campaign against toll booth operators who cheat motorists out of money, she told RFA.

Vietnam’s controversial build-operate-transfer model gives concessions to private companies to build booths across the country and run them for a set period of time before returning them to public ownership.

Protesters say unscrupulous operators have been building booths in locations that haven’t  been approved by the Ministry of Transport.

Hue was arrested on Oct. 16, 2019 after blocking the entrance to Hanoi’s North Thang Long-Noi Bai Toll Station with a convoy of protesters who refused to pay.

The activists claimed the booth operator was collecting tolls to fund a bypass they didn’t use.

Hue was sentenced to 18 months in prison by the People's Court of Hanoi’s Soc Son district in May 2020 for "disturbing public order," extended to 42 months due to a previously suspended sentence for “fraudulent appropriation of property.”

An appeal only cut her sentence by three months and she suffered harsh treatment in prison but Hue remained defiant following her Jan. 16 release.

“I will fight to the end to move wrongly-placed [booths] back to the right places,” she told RFA.

Campaigners still face arrest

She said nothing had changed during her time in prison, with illegal toll collection continuing and the National Assembly rejecting a Transport Ministry proposal to buy back booths operating in the wrong places.

Hue said activists campaigning against a booth in northeastern Vietnam’s Thai Nguyen province are in danger of being arrested because local authorities haven’t changed their attitude.

“They see the wrong, they accept it by having options for conversion and modification but they continue to criminalize the people who speak up,” she said. “They continue to use their power to oppress activists and prevent their protests.”

On the day of her release from Thanh Hoa province’s Prison No. 5, Hue said dozens of fellow activists gathered at the prison gate to pick her up. However, guards took her out of the camp before dawn and abandoned her 20 kilometers (12 miles) away.

When her friends found her hours later, she was shivering from the cold, Hue said.

RFA was unable to contact prison authorities to verify her claims.

Prison law

Hue said she worked six days a week in Prison No. 5 and Yen Khanh Prison, where she was previously held, even though she was ill-fed and lacked proper medical care.

She said prisoners were forced to get up at 5:30 and work for eight hours without toilet breaks.

Women were forced to farm, weave and sew, while men mined stones for no pay.

At Yen Khanh, prisoners had to wade up to their necks in a sewage-filled pond to pick duckweed to feed pigs and chickens, Hue said. Many women got scabies all over their bodies, which went untreated.

Political prisoners are not forced to work, but are locked in their cells if they refuse, so Hue said she chose to work in order to get some fresh air.

In both of the prisons she successfully campaigned against the six-day working week and now inmates get two days off, she said.

According to Vietnamese law, prisoners are supposed to receive a salary to pay for extra food and other essentials, usually leaving some money for them on release. Hue said she didn't receive any money when she was freed.

“They have their own rules, the prison law, not Vietnam's Criminal Judgment Execution Law. Each prison has its own law [to force prisoners] to work differently,” she said.

Medical negligence

Hue described medical care in the two prisons as terrible, with untrained staff who only prescribed painkillers. Many prisoners diagnosed each other’s illnesses and filled out their own medical declarations because staff didn’t examine them, she said.

Cells in Prison No. 5 were cramped, with people lying on stone floors on thin blankets. Each inmate had only 60 centimeters (24 inches) between other prisoners to sleep in, leading to fights.

Prisoners were not allowed to receive food and other essentials from their families in either prison, Hue said, forcing them to buy items three to four times more expensive than they would normally be.

Cramped conditions, insufficient food, hard labor and a lack of proper medical treatment is common in Vietnam’s prisons. In November religious leader Phan Van Thu, 74, died while serving a life sentence at Gia Trung Detention Center in southern Gia Lai province.

Another prisoner of conscience, Luu Van Vinh, said Thu complained of feeling ill but guards failed to check on him or allow him to see a doctor, his wife Nguyen Thi Thap told RFA at the time.

Translated by RFA Vietnamese. Edited by Mike Firn.

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