Torture Survivors' Stories
Democracy Activist Bui Kim Thanh
Bui Kim Thanh was a lawyer and member of the banned Democratic Party of Vietnam who defended victims of land confiscation. She was arrested by police and involuntarily committed to mental hospitals three times, in 1995, 2006, and 2008.
Her arrest and involuntary psychiatric detention in November 2006 was part of a broader government crackdown on activists prior to the visit to Vietnam of U.S. President George Bush. "They were worried I might incite or encourage the victims of land conflicts to protest when Bush came,” she said. During eight months’ stay at Central Psychiatric Hospital No. 2 in Bien Hoa, she received no therapy or counseling, but was forced to take injections three times a day.
“I tried to ask what the injection was, but they would not tell me. The effect of the injection was either I immediately passed out unconscious, or I felt as if paralyzed. Afterwards, there were more reactions: drooling, stiff neck, my whole body was paralyzed, sometimes I passed out….Whenever I objected to the injection, they tied me to my bed with cords for a few hours.”
Her detention at Bien Hoa was primarily punitive in nature, she said, with virtually no therapeutic value.
“During my time at Bien Hoa, I received no counseling whatsoever. They never told me anything about the legal basis for my detention there. They themselves knew there was nothing wrong with me.”
The only time she saw a doctor was the morning after she was admitted, for a session that lasted less than ten minutes.
“His first—and only—question was, ‘Why are you inciting the victims of land injustice to have demonstrations?’ I answered, ‘Why do you not ask me how I feel? After the medication and treatment yesterday, why do you think I can incite anyone? Do you ask this because the police prompt you to do so?’
“He was very unhappy with my response and said, ‘In that case, go back to your room.’”
She was put into an isolation cell where staff could observe her from outside. A sign on the door read: “No one allowed to contact [this patient] without written authorization of the People’s Procuracy of Ho Chi Minh City, the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee, and the Ho Chi Minh City police.”
Later they moved her to another room, where she stayed the rest of the time.“The room was five feet by six feet—enough room for a regular iron bed, a small space to stand, and a toilet. There was no mattress or mosquito net. My family brought me a straw mat and later they were allowed to bring a mosquito net and a blanket.
“There was no window in the room, only an opening with bars on the door—some air came in that way. A small light was turned on when darkness fell but it was not reliable because of power outages. The toilet was very dirty—there were rats, maggots.”
She was not allowed to have newspapers, books, or even paper. Her pen was confiscated at the order of the doctor. She was allowed visitors once a week, though they needed permission from police to visit and were accompanied by police the whole time. Her husband came under pressure from authorities to convince her to pledge not to continue her social activism.
“They used my husband to pressure me to sign a paper agreeing not to speak out for victims of land injustice. ‘If I’m supposed to be crazy, why would I sign?’ I said. ‘I’m supposed to be mentally incompetent.’ I refused to sign.”
After four months confined to her room, her family submitted a petition requesting that she be allowed out of the room. The authorities then let her leave her room, but only at night.
“At first they didn’t want to let me out of the room at all, but my husband and kids wrote a petition. After four months there, I had lost 17 kilos and was so weak that my family insisted, submitted a petition. Then they only let me out at night, not during day time—this was after four months in the room.”
After her release from Bien Hoa in July 2007, Bui Kim Thanh continued her advocacy on behalf of petitioners despite being monitored and harassed by police. In August 2007 she was detained by police, who had a psychiatrist present during her interrogation. In February 2008, she was briefly detained again after she joined many other dissidents at the funeral of veteran dissident Hoang Minh Chinh.
Less than two weeks later, on March 6, 2008, police arrested her, forced her into a police car, and involuntarily committed her to Bien Hoa again. Diplomatic pressure led to her release four months later.
UPDATE: On July 21, 2008, Bui Kim Thanh left Vietnam and resettled in the United States.
--Interview conducted by the Campaign to Abolish Torture in Vietnam.