Lutheran activist remains defiant

Tran Thi Hong is helped home by neighbours after police arrested and beat her on April 14. (Photo courtesy of Nguyen Ngoc Lua)

Tran Thi Hong is helped home by neighbours after police arrested and beat her on April 14. (Photo courtesy of Nguyen Ngoc Lua)

She has been detained, systematically harassed and savagely beaten by the police, but Tran Thi Hong continues to defy the authorities by resuming her work amongst ethnic minority Christian communities in the Central Highlands.

Mrs Hong is the wife of an imprisoned pastor, Nguyen Cong Chinh, who is half way through an 11 year jail term for his work with the unregistered, Vietnam-U.S. Lutheran Alliance Church.

She continues to document abuses committed against members of the church, one of a number of religious groups suffering persecution at the hands of the authorities, and to distribute aid donated by supporters.

She was detained by police in March, and says she was subjected to torture, after she met members of a US delegation that was in Vietnam to investigate restrictions on religious freedom.

Mrs Hong is one of a growing list of activists who have been threatened, detained or beaten up to deter meetings with visiting foreign diplomats and politicians.

Beaten unconscious

She and her son were stopped and manhandled by security officers while on their way to meet David Saperstein, the US ambassador at large for religious freedom.

Officers took her personal papers and motorbike, and escorted her back to her home in the Central Highland city of Pleiku.

The American delegation eventually met Hong at her home several hours later under the watchful eye of security officials.

“I told them about violations of religious freedom against my husband and other ethnic minority prisoners,” she said.

However, after the meeting, Hong was summoned repeatedly and then questioned and physically abused at the police headquarters in Hoa Lu Ward where she lives.

They forced her to reveal what she had told the visiting Americans.

“I was beaten unconscious many times but I was determined not to give them any information. They only stopped their actions when I was too weak to answer,” she told Vietnam Right Now.

Hunger strike

The mother of four is a member of the group, Vietnamese Women for Human Rights.

She said she continued to be summoned and beaten by police during May despite her demand that she be treated as a law abiding citizen.

“Two security officers took me by motorbike to the police building each day and they repeatedly beat me unconscious. I was treated like an animal and they didn’t leave me alone until I went on hunger strike in the middle of May.”

She said police officers forced her to confess that she illegally met with the US delegation in March without a government permit, and to make a statement that the police had not beaten and prevented her from meeting the visitors. She was also accused of joining an unregistered Christian denomination.

“I told them that I never tell a lie and would not comply even if they beat me to death,” she said.

“I said I was a full citizen with the right to travel and to meet with anyone and tell them what I have suffered and witnessed.”

She said her religion had existed for a long time before the foundation of the Communist party.

“I asked why I needed to ask for permission from them.
We have the freedom to practice our faith with or without your approval,”

Repeatedly arrested

The authorities next cut off her internet connection and stationed security guards in front of her house.

After a new round of beatings, she was only released on June 6 after the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and the U.S. Consulate Ho Chi Minh City asked the government to stop the persecution of the Christian activist.

Tran Thi Hong “has been repeatedly arrested and tortured as retaliation for informing the international community of human rights violations against her husband, who is in prison for peaceful religious activities,” said a statement released by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Hr husband, Pastor Chinh, is alleged to have been subjected to torture in prison and deprived of contact with his family.

Members of his Lutheran denomination are mainly from ethnic minority groups in the Central Highlands.

“We are concerned that the repeated arrests and the continuing detention of Mrs Hong resulting from her peaceful human rights work and exercise of her fundamental rights, which constitutes arbitrary detention,” said the OHCHR statement.

It said Vietnam should “immediately and unconditionally release Pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh and Ms. Tran Thi Hong, as well as all persons detained for their legitimate activities in the defence of human rights.”

Solitary confinement

Mrs Hong said she visited her husband in a camp in Binh Duong province in mid-June.

“He suffers badly from high blood pressure and sinusitis. I gave him medicine but prison guards took it away and only let him have it irregularly. This is a way they use to torture and force him to accept their illegal charges.”

She said the outspoken pastor is kept in solitary confinement and depends on the food she sends for him to eat.

She said that although the denomination is prevented from religious activities by the government, its members gather to pray at their houses.

Mrs Hong visits church members who live in poverty and consoles family members whose relatives have been imprisoned for their faith.

“We will never move to another place. We have decided to live here and reach out to poor ethnic people,” she said.

“Our struggle for religious freedom has a long and hard road ahead. We need strong support from all people.”

By Joseph Nguyen, a freelance journalist writing on social and religious issues in Vietnam