Six years in a windowless cell: Life in Thanh Hoa Prison No. 5

Nguyen Van Dien tells RFA about conditions for Vietnam’s political prisoners.
By RFA Vietnamese
2023.02.28
Six years in a windowless cell: Life in Thanh Hoa Prison No. 5 Nguyen Van Dien in court in Jan. 2018.
Screenshot: ANTV

After six years in prison, political activist Nguyen Van Dien has been telling Radio Free Asia about his time served in a tiny cell with no window in the scorching heat of central Vietnam.

Dien, also known as Dien Ai Quoc, returned to his home in northeastern Vietnam’s Yen Bai province on Feb. 22, six months before his sentence was due to end. He is still serving four years’ probation for the crime of “propaganda against the state.”

“Being in prison was very harsh, we were kept in cells 24 hours a day. Most cells have two and some cells have one prisoner,” Dien said, describing conditions in Thanh Hoa Prison No. 5 in central Vietnam.

“Each cell is 15 square meters [161 square feet]. There is an exercise yard the same size and we were allowed to walk in that yard. [Apart from that] we were not allowed to go out to exercise or socialize.”

Dien was detained in a section for dissidents with "national security" convictions, including poet Tran Duc Thach, music college lecturer Nguyen Nang Tinh and former army Lt. Col. Tran Anh Kim.

He said the exercise yard was surrounded by high walls and wire mesh above while the cell had no window, making it very hot in summer.

Some prisoners complained about conditions to the warden and, from the start of this year, the prison started allowing political prisoners to use the exercise yard for an hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon.

Fighting against inhumane treatment

Dien, 40, said that while serving his prison sentence, he repeatedly fought against inhumane treatment and demanded his release.

He staged a 21-day hunger strike in July 2019. Two months later he went on a seven-day hunger strike.

In mid-August 2020, after climbing onto the water tank of the detention center to protest inhumane treatment and demand his release, he was put in solitary confinement for 50 days.

He said there were two prisoners in the punishment block, serving common criminal sentences, who were tasked with monitoring and intimidating him. 

After a two-day hunger strike authorities returned him to his cell in the political prisoners’ wing.

Dien said prisoners who wrote confessions were treated better by authorities.

During the last two years of detention he was allowed to work in the prison gardens and keep and eat the vegetables he grew.

Dien said he believes his sentence was reduced by six months because he signed a guilty plea.

RFA phoned Prison No. 5 many times to verify the information but no one answered.

Fighting for democracy

Dien has been active in Vietnam’s democracy movement since 2007, fighting for the rights of Vietnamese workers in Malaysia alongside Vu Quang Thuan. The two were taken to court by Malaysian authorities in 2011, and deported.

After that, Thuan and a number of other activists founded the Chu Hung Nuoc Viet (Reviving Vietnam) movement with the goal of peacefully campaigning for a multi-party democracy in Vietnam. Dien is a member but it is not clear whether he co-founded the group.

Reviving Vietnam had a YouTube channel which specializes in reporting on human rights violations, land acquisition without adequate compensation, corruption and many other issues in Vietnam. The channel has been removed from YouTube following the arrests of the group's organizers.

Several other members of the movement, such as veteran journalists Pham Thanh (Dam Xoe), Le Trong Hung, and Le Van Dung (Dung Vova) are also being held in prison on charges of "conducting propaganda against the State." according to Article 117 of the 2015 Penal Code.

Translated by RFA Vietnamese. Edited by Mike Firn.

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