Prisoners of Conscience:
Post-Trial Abuses: Isolation and Harsh Treatment
Once tried and sentenced to prison, prisoners of conscience are physically separated from the general inmate population and stripped of many of the rights accorded to other prisoners under Vietnamese law.
Rather than living in communal cells and being able to circulate with the general inmate population, prisoners of conscience are confined in special “Security Sections” (Khu An Ninh), where they are kept in small cells with two to five cellmates. If allowed outside of their cells it is only to a small enclosed area adjacent to their cell. They are not allowed to mingle or communicate with other prisoners other than their cellmates, if they have any. They are prohibited from joining regular prison activities with the general inmate population such as group sports, cultural activities and vocational training.
Security Sections — referred to as “prisons within prisons” by human rights activists — are frequently placed under lock-down. During that time, prisoners of conscience are not allowed to leave their cells even to get food or shower. Meals are delivered to their rooms; doors are locked and windows shut, especially when there are visiting delegations. Prison officials send guards or “antennae” (inmates who take orders from prison officials to monitor or punish prisoners in exchange for favors) to stay with prisoners during visits by outside delegations to ensure that they do not communicate their grievances.
Under Vietnam’s Law 53 on Execution of Criminal Judgements, prisoners have the right to be held in communal cells with others and participate in prison activities, unless they violate prison regulations, are dangerous, have a contagious disease, or are being evaluated for mental illness. However, Circular 37, issued in 2011 as implementing legislation for Law 53, provides for the classification, segregation and differential treatment of prisoners by type, including prisoners convicted of national security offenses — in other words, prisoners of conscience.
Prisoners of conscience who speak out about prison abuses, or who refuse to sign admissions of their guilt, are subjected to additional measures to further isolate and punish them. Under Circular 37, directors of prisons and detention camps can arbitrarily decide to hold prisoners of conscience in solitary confinement for months on end, revoke their family visitation rights, prohibit them from leaving their cells and going outside, and confiscate reading materials and supply packages sent to them by their families.
In a 2016 report, Amnesty International described the isolation of prisoners of conscience as “a system of physical and emotional isolation with several deliberate aims: to break prisoners of conscience into “confessing” to the crimes they are charged with; to punish them for challenging the authority of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) by asserting their rights; and to prevent them from interacting with fellow prisoners and continuing their activism behind bars.”
Relentless Pressure to Confess
Many prisons require inmates to write “self-criticism” reports every three months. In these reports, prisoners are required to state that they have clearly seen their mistakes and the errors of their ways; in other words, to admit to their guilt under the charges on which they had been convicted. They are also encouraged to report on any wrongdoing by fellow prisoners.
High profile dissidents with large followings outside prison are subjected to even more pressure by prison authorities to confess to the crimes they have been charged with — ideally in writing or in front of a video camera, for broadcast on national television. Many prisoners of conscience are subjected to countless hours of interrogation and “education” sessions, where prison authorities hector, harangue and threaten them in efforts to break their resolve, confess their guilt, and stop raising complaints about prison conditions. As was the case with Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, prisoners’ families may also be pressured by prison authorities to convince prisoners of conscience to confess in exchange for early release.
Beatings and Abuse by Other Prisoners
Many former prisoners of conscience report that in addition to being beaten by police and prison officials, they were regularly subjected to harassment and even beatings by other inmates who were common criminals. These beatings are often carried out by cell “bosses” appointed by prison authorities or other inmates – known as “antennae” – who have been planted or encouraged by prison officials. Requests for intervention or to transfer cells are ignored. These acts of physical and mental harassment are instigated and rewarded by prison authorities to inflict severe mental suffering and punish prisoners of conscience for speaking out against abuses or refusing to confess, without prison officials appearing responsible.
Prohibitions on torture provided by UNCAT include instances where the immediate perpetrators are not government officials but individuals acting “at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.” (Article 16 of UNCAT).
In August 2018, human rights defender Tran Thi Nga, currently serving a nine-year jail sentence, said she was brutally beaten and threatened with death by her assigned inmate in Gia Trung prison. According to former prisoners of conscience who were detained in that same prison in Gia Lai province, said inmate is known to be violent and often ended up in the same cell as prisoners of conscience.
In June 2018, blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh (also known as Me Nam, or Mother Mushroom) told her mother during a visit that two female prisoners had recently been moved to her cell and started harassing, provoking and insulting her. Extremely distressed, she asked the guards to intervene, but no action was taken. In addition, another inmate often came to her cell, accompanied by a female guard, and threatened her verbally. The blogger told her mother that she feared for her own life.
During his appeal hearing in April 2018, labor rights defender Hoang Duc Binh revealed that he had been housed with death row inmates, who had attacked him on multiple occasions.
After his sentencing in 2013, human rights activist Dang Xuan Dieu was placed in a cell with thugs working with the guards. “They wanted me to accept the verdict and admit guilt,” he told ACAT France in an interview after his release. “They beat me up, kicked me, insulted me, and threatened me with death. They enslaved me: I had to clean the cell, boil some water for them… Humiliations and psychological pressure were harder to endure than the physical violence.” After his health rapidly worsened, guards started fearing he would die and withdrew the thugs from Dieu’s cell.
In addition to physical abuse, prison authorities subject prisoners of conscience to intense psychological pressure and other tactics that leave no physical marks or visible scars to break them down and get them to confess. While all forms of torture cause psychological pain, psychological torture has been defined as the intentional infliction of severe mental pain and suffering without direct physical violence.
Several former prisoners of conscience have reported that prison authorities made them take unknown pills or injected them with unknown drugs during pre-trial detention. In some cases the intent appears to have been to calm down the prisoner or make him or her docile. In other cases prisoners said they were given medication in order to energize them and make them more talkative during interrogation. Khmer Krom land rights activist Chau Hen was administered unknown injections twice during his three months of pre-trial detention and interrogation in Tri Ton district jail in An Giang. Each time the injections left him unconscious for long periods of time and unable to speak or to think clearly even when he was conscious.
Hoa Hao Buddhist and land rights activist Tran Thi Thuy was given some unknown medication by prison authorities during her eight-year imprisonment, which made her mental condition become alarmingly unstable. She began displaying symptoms of schizophrenia and became confused to the point that she was unable to recognize her family members. Thanks to her family’s advocacy towards the international human rights community, prison authorities stopped making Thuy take the medicine. She gradually regained mental clarity and was able to communicate coherently again. Released from prison in August 2018, she is currently serving five years’ probation.
Some of the psychological techniques that police and prison authorities in Vietnam use on prisoners of conscience clearly amount to torture. These include isolation, death threats, sexual humiliation, forced medication, stress positions, denial of natural light, water torture, denial of religious materials, confiscation of personal journals or poetry written in detention, and erratic scheduling of interrogation sessions.
Prison authorities routinely deny requests for bibles by Christian prisoners of conscience. Montagnard Protestants report that prison officials taunted them about their religion during interrogation, saying “Where is your God to help you now?” Several Montagnards said a common stress position during interrogation was to be forced to stand on one leg, with both arms held out perpendicular to the body (in the form of a crucifix).
Buddhists prisoners of conscience report being forced to engage in activities contrary to their faith. Khmer Krom Buddhist monk Kim Muon said prison authorities forced him to eat dog meat, which violates his vows as a monk, put underwear on his head, and mocked his faith by saying he had only joined the monkhood in order to become involved in politics.
The practice of putting prisoners in conditions designed to be to be degrading or humiliating – such as preventing them from attending to personal hygiene and depriving them of proper toilet and bathing facilities – is also considered psychological torture (see section 6.2, above). Together with solitary and incommunicado confinement and restrictions on family visits, the aim is to increase prisoners’ isolation, distress, and feelings of powerlessness.
Under Vietnamese law, prisoners who violate regulations may be placed in solitary confinement for periods up to 10 days. In many cases, however, prisoners of conscience are sent to solitary confinement — often for far more than 10 days — not as a disciplinary measure but as to isolate and punish them for raising complaints about prison conditions or refusing to admit any guilt under the charges on which they have been convicted.
Again, Circular 37 serves as the legal basis for harsh treatment of prisoners of conscience. It provides for prolonged solitary confinement of “particularly dangerous” prisoners who “show signs or activities of making contact and colluding with other inmates and outsiders in order to carry out opposing activities” as well as “inmates with relentless opposing activities or inmates requiring isolation for feasible education and re-education.” Under Circular 37, prison officials can mete out solitary confinement in three-month terms. No limit is set on the number of terms, which can be extended at the discretion of prison officials, who determine whether the prisoner has shown “progress with rehabilitation.”
Democracy campaigner Vi Duc Hoi spent two periods of prolonged solitary confinement: eight months in pre-trial detention at Yen Trach District Detention Center and close to nine months at Nam Ha Prison after he protested the beating of another prisoner. “My health began to decline while I was in solitary,” he told CAT-VN after his release from prison. “My blood pressure became higher, and I was often dizzy, and I could not see very well because of poor blood circulation to my head.”
Human rights activist Dang Xuan Dieu was sent to solitary confinement, where his feet were shackled for three weeks as punishment for refusing to plead guilty and for pushing for better conditions for his fellow inmates.
Using coercive tactics, such as intentionally placing prisoners in isolation in order to apply psychological pressure on them to confess or to break their will, violates the Convention against Torture and other international prohibitions against torture.
Arbitrary Prison Transfers and Denial of Family Visits
International standards provide that prisoners and detained persons have the right to contact the outside world, including regular visits and correspondence, particularly with family members and legal counsel. In addition, reasonable efforts should be made to place convicted prisoners near their usual place of residence.
The reality is that prisoners of conscience are often sent to prisons far from their homes. Many are subjected to numerous prison transfers, usually without any prior notification to their families. These punitive prison transfers are authorized by Circular 37, which calls for the “division and transfer” of inmates who “show signs or activities of colluding, forming cliques... refusing to work or study” as well as those who have been “educated but show no progress in rehabilitation.”
Such prison transfers aim to stem prison activism by prisoners of conscience by breaking up prison relationships and support networks, while intensifying prisoners’ sense of powerlessness and isolation. The transfers also deprive them of crucial supplies and emotional support from their families, who face increased geographical and financial burdens with each visit.
According to Amnesty International, “the practice is common in the cases of recalcitrant prisoners of conscience who refuse to plead guilty or who resist ‘re-education’, as well as high-profile or influential prisoners who authorities fear will persuade other prisoners to protest prison conditions and ill-treatment.”
Prisoners’ families are rarely notified about transfers in advance, and often learn about a transfer only after traveling to their former prison to visit them. In some cases, prison authorities refuse to divulge the new location.
The list of prisoners who have been targeted with punitive prison transfers is long. Examples include the following:
Because of Dang Xuan Dieu’s refusal to admit guilt or to even wear the prison uniform, he was not allowed to see his family nor send or receive letters and phone calls during his five years and five months in prison between 2011 and 2017. After her arrest in October 2016, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh was denied letters from family and friends, as well as outgoing mail, and a Bible. Some political prisoners have been denied visitors during their entire imprisonment, such as the 37 people sentenced to prison in May 2001 for alleged involvement with Nguyen Huu Chanh’s “Government of Free Vietnam” group.
When family visits are allowed, they are closely monitored and controlled by prison officials who may take notes, audio recordings and photos. In an interview with CAT-VN, democracy campaigner Vi Duc Hoi described the situation at Nam Ha Prison: “The guards governed the visits – we could only talk about the family situation – no discussion about society, what’s happening outside, or prison conditions. We could ask about each other’s health, but couldn’t talk about the condition of the prison or how harshly we were being treated. If we went out of line, they warned us once; a second infraction and the visit would be finished right then and there.”
Human rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai was not allowed to see his family until 11 months after his arrest. He was allowed to write letters to his family once a month but only after his release did he learn that authorities had mailed only two of his 14 letters. “When I heard that my father-in-law had passed away, I asked to write a letter to my family to share my condolences. I was permitted to write the letter but they never received it,” he told ACAT France after his release.
In another example, labor rights activist and citizen journalist Tran Thi Nga’s family members made multiple long trips to the prison in the past three months, but were not allowed to visit her. They were told by the prison wardens that Nga was being disciplined for violating prison regulations.
Denial of visitation rights constitutes a clear violation of international prison standards, which provide that except in exceptional circumstances and subject to reasonable restrictions specified by law, communication with the outside world — particularly visits by and communication by family members — “shall not be denied for more than a matter of days.”
Inadequate Health Care
Former prisoners of conscience report that conditions in Vietnamese detention centers and jails have led to several types of illnesses and infections amongst prisoners, including intestinal issues, diarrhea, and skin diseases. Some prisoners also report having experienced partial paralysis of the legs. For those who do not receive financial support from the outside and are forced to eat only the food provided by the prison, the lack of protein leads to their muscles weakening, sometimes preventing them from being able to stand.
Vietnam’s 2010 Law on Execution of Criminal Judgments calls for separate detention of detainees and prisoners with infectious diseases. Yet, several former prisoners of conscience have reported being detained in the same cells as inmates suffering from communicable and potentially deadly diseases, such as tuberculosis or HIV. Prisoner of conscience Nguyen Trung Ton, who was sometimes placed in cells with HIV-positive inmates during his first imprisonment between 2011 and 2013, contracted kidney stones and developed a skin fungus due to the lack of natural light in his cell.
Others said that poor sanitation, overcrowding, and prison health practices, such as forcing male inmates to share razors, heightened the risk of contracting contagious illnesses. Human rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai contracted hepatitis B, a serious blood borne viral infection, in pre-trial detention. He questioned the safety of some practices he experienced in pre-trial detention. For example, officers would pressure the inmates to shave quickly, and take the razors they all shared away after two minutes. This caused accidents where prisoners cut themselves in the rush, and could be a cause for infection through the use of razors contaminated with infected blood.
Former prisoner Huynh Anh Tri, whose brother died in prison from HIV, said that during his 14 years in prison he was also forced to share razors with other inmates, some of whom were HIV-positive. In an interview after his release, he said that when prisoners of conscience were disciplined, prison authorities would put them in shackles tainted with the blood of the HIV-positive inmates. If they agreed to pay a bribe to the guards, they would be put in “clean” shackles. Tri and his former prison mate said that during their time in prison they witnessed several HIV-positive prisoners die. Tri himself was diagnosed with Stage 3 HIV shortly after his release and passed away a few months later.
In some cases, guards have taunted prisoners of conscience by saying they will contract HIV by alleging that their cell mates are HIV-positive. During the incarceration of land rights activist Can Thi Theu, guards terrorized her by informing her that her cellmates were both HIV-positive and implying that she was at risk of contracting the virus.
Hoa Hao Buddhist Mai Thi Dung, a female religious prisoner who suffered from gallstones prior to her imprisonment, spent more than two years in the prison’s tightly packed “health clinic” with HIV positive prisoners, 11 of whom died while she was there. When a patient died, their bodies were left up to three hours in the crowded cell before prison guards removed them.
Withholding Medical Treatment
The denial or withholding of medical treatment is also used by Vietnamese authorities to pressure prisoners of conscience to either confess their alleged guilt or weaken their body and spirits.
While serving an eight-year sentence between 2010 and 2018, Hoa Hao Buddhist and land rights activist Tran Thi Thuy was diagnosed with a tumor on her uterus, but was denied medical treatment. A prison officer told her to admit her crimes or “die in prison”. The tumor continued to grow and Thuy was in such severe pain that she was unable to walk without assistance. She was also suffering from painful boils all over her body that burst and emitted blood and pus. Such denial of medical treatment is the intentional infliction of extreme pain and suffering, thus a form of torture.
On June 16, 2017, human rights defender Tran Thi Nga told her lawyer, Ha Huy Son that her health was deteriorating and that she was denied medical treatment for her mucosal injury, sustained in May 2014 after she was beaten for her political activism. Due to her health worsening, she could not eat anything but rice soup.
In February 2018, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh's mother, Nguyen Thi Tuyet Lan, visited her in prison briefly and reported that she was still in poor health, with curled up fingers and toes, and she had recently suffered from an allergic reaction to medication provided by the prison. Yet, the prison has repeatedly denied Quynh medication sent by her mother.
Even when they eventually consent to give medicine to the prisoners, the jail authorities find ways to make it distressing for the prisoner. When Nguyen Van Dai contracted a virus while in pre-trial detention and asked for medication, he was told that he would be given water at 8AM followed by medication at 9AM. He waited throughout the day but it was only during the middle of the night, when he was fast asleep, that they woke him up to give him his medication. The lawyer reported that this also occurred to some of his fellow inmates who required medication. Medical examination would be carried through the prison bars. Nguyen Van Dai had to tell the doctor which medicine he required, as the doctor was not allowed to prescribe any medicine.
Amnesty International notes that “Such denial of medical treatment is a passive but clear form of torture, as it involves the intentional infliction of pain and suffering by officials for the purpose of extracting a confession, thus meeting all the criteria in the definition of torture as set out in Article 1(1) of the UNCAT.”
Deaths in Prison
Physical abuse, heavy physical labor, overcrowded cells, and lack of adequate food, sanitation and medical care can mean a death sentence for some dissidents sentenced to prison. Former prisoners and the families of prisoners tell of numerous inmates who died in prison—even those who were relatively young and in their 40s. Others were prematurely released from prison to home or to hospital on temporary medical parole because they were so ill that prison authorities feared they would die in prison.
Harsh treatment, beatings, and torture of Montagnards in police custody and in prison resulted in the deaths of at least 25 Montagnards between 2001 and 2011, according to Human Rights Watch.
(Excerpted from "Torture in Vietnam 2018: Joint NGO Report to the UN Committee Against Torture," November 2018.)
 The reports are called “Tiêu chuẩn thi đua — chấp hành án phạt tù”, or “Standards to copy regarding following prison regulations - accepting imprisonment sentence.”
 The Convention against Torture defines torture in pertinent part as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted.”
 2010 Law on Execution of Criminal Judgments (No. 53/2010/QH12), article 38(1)(c) and 2015 Law on Enforcement of Custody and Temporary Detention (No. 94/2015/QH13, article 23(1)(b).
 UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, article 37.
 “Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons Under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment,” Principle 20, Resolution 43/173 adopted by the UN General Assembly, Dec. 9, 1988.
 Article 46, Law on Execution of Criminal Judgments, No. 53/2010/QH12, June 17, 2010.
 “Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment,” principles 15 and 19, General Assembly Resolution 43/173, December 9, 1988.