The last Lunar New Year holiday, “Tet” in Vietnamese, is one Huynh Anh Khoa would like to forget.
Police in Ho Chi Minh City arrested Khoa and his friend Nguyen Dang Thuong in June 2020 for participating in an online discussion group on Facebook.
Both men were charged with “abusing democratic freedoms” under a vaguely worded law often used by authorities to stifle dissent and sentenced to 15 months in prison.
A year ago, Khoa rang in the year of the ox behind bars.
“Last Tet, I was transferred to Bo La detention center from a tiny detention house in District 8,” Khoa told RFA.
“My cell in District 8 housed only three people but was very small and stuffy. As we did not have access to any information about our families. We were really struggling mentally.”
Khoa was released from prison on Sept. 13, 2021, and today he is grateful to be able to welcome the year of the tiger, which starts Feb. 1, with family and friends.
“We often say that the outside world is a big prison. However, living outside is still so much better than staying in prison, far away from our families,” Khoa said.
According to New York-based Human Rights Watch, at least 145 people are in prison in Vietnam for peacefully demonstrating or expressing political opinions. At least 31 of these detainees were imprisoned in 2021 for criticizing the government online and will soon experience their first Lunar New Year in prison.
RFA talked with former inmates and the families of current inmates about their experiences in prison at a time when many of their countrymen and women are celebrating one of the region’s most significant holidays.
Prisoners live in squalid or crowded cells, may suffer from severe health problems, and can be subjected to torture and solitary confinement at any time of the year.
But during the Lunar New Year many say a pervasive loneliness can often overcome them. That’s been made worse by a pandemic that has further restricted access to their loved ones behind bars.
Sometimes families are only allowed to speak with prisoners for 10 minutes each month, Truong Thuc Doan, the daughter of imprisoned RFA blogger, Truong Duy Nhat, told RFA.
“Since May 2021, visits are banned as a consequence of the pandemic. … He said he had been vaccinated. However, when the weather changes, his herniated disc problem and allergic rhinitis often come back, causing him a lot of pain,” she said.
In 2019, Nhat received a 10-year sentence for “abusing position and power while being on official duty” over a land-use scandal dating back to his days as a reporter for a state-run newspaper.
The 88 Project, an Illinois-based group that promotes free speech in Vietnam, called the conviction “dubious” because his position was not high enough to commit the crime.
Tran Huynh Duy Thuc is serving a 16-year sentence at Detention Center No. 6 in Vietnam’s northern Nghe An province after being arrested in 2009 on charges of “carrying out activities to overthrow the people’s government” for blogging.
RFA reported in August that Thuc had vowed to begin a hunger strike, which would have been his fourth, if his 16-year prison term was not reduced to five years to reflect changes to the law after he was sentenced.
According to the 88 Project, Thuc has been tortured and put in solitary confinement and has been transferred far away from his family for standing up for prisoner rights.
“So far, my family hasn’t visited my brother Thuc as visits are banned due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Tran Huynh Duy Tan told RFA.
“Thuc has only been allowed to call home twice a month during the pandemic. His health is okay now, and we haven’t got any new updates,” Tan said.
Conditions in some of the prisons are so bad that the prisoners often get sick, Nguyen Thi Hue, older sister of imprisoned RFA reporter Nguyen Van Hoa, told RFA.
Hoa was arrested in 2017 while filming a demonstration against the Taiwanese conglomerate involved in the Formosa chemical spill in central Vietnam the year before.
Hoa is serving a seven-year term.
“He often gets the flu, cough, runny nose and headaches recently. His health has deteriorated,” Hue said.
“His mental health during the pandemic has not been good, either. People who live in the outside world have been worried about their family members living in prison. Those living inside have been very concerned about the health of their families living outside. It has been very challenging,” she said.
Nguyen Thi Chau, the wife of Nguyen Ngoc Anh, a shrimp farmer in prison on a six-year sentence for his environmental activism, told RFA that she hasn’t seen her husband in more than a year.
“He’s still at the Xuan Loc Detention Center. The last time I met him was in December 2020,” she said.
“In a recent phone call, he told me not to visit him during Tet, because the center was not allowing prisoners to receive gifts and supplies, and prisoners could only see their families through a glass partition, so it would be better for me to stay home. He said that we might try arranging a visit if the children are allowed to see him after Tet,” she said.
Do Thi Thu, the wife of Trinh Ba Phuong, in detention since 2020 for his role in a protest that turned violent at a commune near Hanoi, where several police officers and protesters were killed, told RFA she has no idea where he is being detained.
“Since his initial trial at the Hanoi People’s Court on Dec. 15, I have only heard that my husband had appealed his sentence,” she said.
Phuong’s brother Trinh Ba Tu and mother Can Thi Theu were also arrested at the same time, and Thu said that she had no updates about their cases either.
Translated by Anna Vu. Written in English by Eugene Whong.