Concern is growing for the health of some political prisoners in Vietnam amid reports that the government sometimes withholds adequate medical care to try to force confessions.
Most at risk are prisoners with pre-existing conditions, who are held for months and even years before trial, and are denied all access to family members and lawyers.
International rights activists say the policy sometimes amounts to a passive form of torture, and violates Vietnam’s commitments under UNCAT (The UN Convention against Torture), which Vietnam ratified in 2015.
Family members and rights groups are deeply concerned about the treatment of Nguyen Bac Truyen, a campaigner for religious freedom in the Mekong Delta, who suffers from heart and bowel conditions.
He was arrested at the end of July in a sweep against pro-democracy activists and charged with plotting to overthrow the state under Article 79 of the penal code.
The authorities have denied him all access to relatives, who have been unable to supply the medicines that he needs.
Three fellow members of the Brotherhood for Democracy were arrested at the same time.
“Cruel and inhumane”
The wife of one detainee, who preferred not to be identified for fear of retribution against her husband, expressed her anguish to Vietnam Right Now.
“It is just the authorities being extra cruel and inhumane. Moving him from Saigon to Hanoi, hundreds of miles from our home; then refusing all communication – and now refusing to accept urgent medicines. How can I be sure he is getting any kind of treatment or medicine in prison ?” she said.
“These are the medicines that he needs and that I tried to hand over to the prison after they refused to let me see him – but they wouldn’t even accept them from me.”
Amnesty International has alleged that the authorities frequently withhold adequate treatment as part of a broader policy of abuse and torture.
“Given the appalling conditions and brutal treatment, it is not surprising that prisoners of conscience routinely fall ill in Vietnam’s detention centres and prisons,” it said in a report last year.
“In some cases…prisoners of conscience experienced months of severe pain and suffering and were told by the authorities that they would not receive any medical treatment unless they confessed to their alleged crimes,” it said.
Campaigners have also raised the alarm over the health of Tran Thi Thuy, a land rights activists jailed since 2010, who relatives say has been repeatedly denied adequate treatment.
A Hoa Hao Buddhist, like Truyen, she has been diagnosed with a tumour on her uterus and is believed to be in severe pain.
Amnesty said that she was once told that she would be denied treatment until she confessed to the charges against her.
She was sentenced to eight years in prison, along with six other land rights activists, during a one day trial in 2010.
Her brother told Radio Free Asia that he was allowed to visit her this month at the An Phuoc detention centre in the southern province of Binh Duong and that her condition had deteriorated badly.
He said she had tumours all over her body and was suffering greatly.
He told RFA that she had been sent to hospital for checks in September but he was concerned that medicines had not been administered correctly. He said he had been unable to meet the doctor to discuss her treatment.
Broken bodies and failing health
Rights groups say that Vietnam’s failure to provide adequate heath care violates a number of international agreements.
In addition to UNCAT, Vietnam is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which prohibits torture and ill treatment. It is also bound by customary international law.
Amnesty International, in its report last year, said that many former prisoners had gone to jail in good condition, or with only minor complaints, but had emerged with broken bodies and failing health.
“Their testimonies reveal how Vietnamese prison authorities withheld medical treatment and assistance in a calculated effort to apply further pressure on individuals to admit their wrongdoing and confess to the charges against them, or simply as a means to punish them for their alleged crimes against the regime,” said the report.
Break the will
Nguyen Van Dai, a prominent human rights activist, endured severe ill treatment while serving a four year prison sentence from 2008 on a charge of spreading propaganda against the state.
He has now been held incommunicado for nearly two years following his second arrest, and there is concern that this time his health could break.
His wife, Vu Minh Khanh, has been denied any contact with him since his detention in December 2015 and has consistently raised concerns about his health.
She said he was suffering from hepatitis B before his arrest and his condition had been stable, but she now fears his health could have seriously deteriorated.
Dai was badly beaten up by suspected plainclothes police agents a week before his arrest and had not fully recovered by the time he was taken away.
Vietnam is engaged in a renewed drive to break the will of its most determined critics. Relatives of prisoners fear that it is less constrained than ever in its determination to consolidate power and crush those that dare question its methods.