Family of political prisoner describes his ordeal behind bars

Fellow prisoners terrorize him, and it is affecting his mental health, his wife says.
By RFA Vietnamese
Family of political prisoner describes his ordeal behind bars Activist Nguyen Lan Thang attends a protest in 2016 against the Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Group, whose factory caused Vietnam’s worst-ever environmental disaster.
(Facebook/Nguyen Lan Thang)

Updates at 9:04 am ET on Dec. 20, 2023.

A Vietnamese prisoner-of-conscience serving a six-year sentence has been a frequent target of inmates in the notorious Prison No. 5 in the northern province of Thanh Hoa, his family told RFA.

"Since his arrival at Prison No. 5, he has been held in cell block K1. It's not a solitary confinement area, but he has had to share the cell with two or sometimes three inmates, some of whom showed signs of mental illness,” his wife, Le Bich Vuong, told RFA Vietnamese shortly after visiting him. 

“They keep swearing, and they often scold him and insult him,” she said. Their behavior is seriously hurting his mental health, she said.

In April, the Hanoi People’s Court sentenced Nguyen Lan Thang, a long-time contributor of blog posts on politics and society to Radio Free Asia’s Vietnamese service, to six years in prison and two years of probation.

Authorities arrested him in July 2022 based on allegations that he posted videos on Facebook and YouTube that were said to “oppose” the Vietnamese Communist Party.

He did not appeal the verdict and was transferred to serve his jail term on June 15.

Vuong said that even when her husband is resting, inmates swear at him and incite him to fight with them or to file petitions to denounce prison guards,” she said. When he did not follow their request, these people insulted him with foul language.

Terrorizing other inmates

Vietnamese prison guards are known to use loyal inmates to terrorize others, especially political prisoners. The practice allows them to plausibly deny responsibility for a prisoner’s mistreatment.

After the visit, Thang’s family complained to the prison and requested that management take measures to improve the situation, including moving him to another cell. However, the management responded that he should deal with the situation because the prison has limited facilities.

According to two former prisoners who were held at Prison No. 5, cell block K1 is a temporary place for newly arrived male prisoners. These inmates are usually transferred to other divisions after a few days or a few weeks. Political prisoners are usually held in cell block K3 if they are men and cell block K4 if they are women.

Former political prisoner Nguyen Van Dien, who had been held in K1 for more than four years until his release at the end of February, told RFA that it had the best facilities among all the cell blocks. It even had sports facilities for inmates, he said.

However, not every inmate has access to K1 facilities.

Vuong said she did not understand why her husband had been held in K1 for the past six months.

He was allowed to leave his cell once a month to see his family and always had to stay in the cell at all other times, she said, adding that he hasn’t had access to the sports area.

Thang requested to be allowed to do prison labor to avoid staying in the stuffy cell all the time, but his request was rejected.


RFA contacted the prison by telephone and a staff member who refused to identify himself denied all of Thang’s claims, saying that his prison stay has been conducted according to regulations and the law. 

The staff member recommended contacting the Ministry of Public Security’s Department of Prison Management for detailed responses to questions.

The staff member also said that cell block K1 held prisoners with sentences ranging from eight months to life, and was not a transitory cell block as the previous prisoners claimed.

According to human rights lawyer Dang Dinh Manh, who fled Vietnam this year and currently resides in the United States, it is clear that Thang has been mistreated and retaliated against for his resilience. 

"There are no legal provisions that allow holding normal inmates with mentally ill inmates,” he said. “Banning prisoners who don't violate rules and regulations from coming out of their cells to do physical exercises and plant trees is also illegal. … These [practices] obviously violate not only regulations on prisoner management but also human rights. They should be condemned."

Thang’s treatment in prison was “no surprise” because he is being targeted as a political prisoner, Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, told RFA.

Guards' use of so-called trustee prisoners to terrorize political prisoners is particularly common since the prison officials will then claim they are not responsible,” he said. 

“In fact, everything that goes on inside the prison is strictly controlled by the warden and their guards, which means that what is happening to Nguyen Lan Thang is no doubt international harassment and abuse."

In addition, Thang has also been unable to access any outside information.

According to his family, Thang said that he had sent them some letters in July and August, but they had not received them yet. His family also sent him letters and books many times, but due to the prison's time-consuming censorship protocols, he was not updated on his family's information and he has no books to read.

Vuong said that her family was preparing to send a petition to the Prison Management Police Department, the Thanh Hoa Provincial People's Procuracy, and Prison No. 5, requesting an investigation into Thang's allegations.

His family also requested the prison to move him to cell block K3, where prisoners are allowed to carry out some activities, including physical exercise and planting trees.

Translated by Anna Vu. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster. 

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