Prisoner of conscience Ho Duc Hoa, who was sentenced to 13 years in prison in January 2013 charged with “carrying out activities to overthrow the People’s Government,was released and Fly in the United States on May 1, the day before the Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Minh Chinhtrip to Washington DC for an American summit with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Despite Suffering health problems linked to poor detention conditions, the Christian Hoa shared with RFA his experiences as political prisoner in Vietnama one-party communist state with little tolerance for dissent.
FRG: Congratulations to be released and start a new life in the United States. Could you please share with us your feelings when you arrived here?
Ho Duc Hoa: When I just landed in the United States, the land of the free, the first feeling that came to me was that I missed my mother; my lost father, who died when I was in prison; and my younger brother, who also died when I was in prison. I also thought of those who had supported me and pleaded for my release. I remembered the staff of the United States Embassy [in Hanoi] and the State Department who received me and organized my trip to the USA
I would now like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude and send my prayers to those whom I know or do not know in person but who always supported me until my release. I don’t know how to reciprocate if not to ask God to bless you and wish you all health, peace and safety.
FRG: In your stay in Vietnam, it seems that you were transferred to different prisons. What can you say on the lives of political prisoners in these places?
Ho Duc Hoa: In fact, I lived in four detention centers, three of which were temporary and one was permanent. The first was the B34 detention center in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). The second was No. 34 Detention Center in Hanoi, and the third was the Nghi Kim detention center in the central province of Nghe An. The last the one where I stayed the longest was Nam Ha Detention Center in the northern province of Ha Nam.
Among them, Nghe An Province Detention Center was the worst in terms of living conditions.
I lived in the quarters for political prisoners, which were separate from the quarters for common law prisoners. I quickly recognized the discrimination against political prisoners as soon as I arrived at each detention center. For example, we had to live in warm, tiny cells and lie next to the toilet. The water was so contaminated that we often had sore and itchy eyes after taking a shower. We had made a lot of complaints, some of which were dealt with but many just fell silent without any response.
FRG: How do Vietnamese prisons treat religious prisoners like you? Do you receive scriptures and religious books? How do they respond to requests to allow religious practice?
Ho Duc Hoa: In fact, when I was detained in temporary detention centers, I was allowed to receive scriptures and read them daily. However, things have changed since 2020, when I was in Nam Ha Detention Center. They tightened the policy and only allowed me to read the scriptures once a week, every Sunday.
When I strongly demanded the right to read the scriptures daily, they released a document accusing me of violating the rules of the detention center. Then I went on a 10-day hunger strike to fight for the right to read the scriptures. I believe religious practice is a right, not a favor. However, they did not change their harsh policies towards religious prisoners. I was very weak during my hunger strike and my health has deteriorated considerably since then.
FRG: could you tuh us Learn about the struggle of other prisoners for their rights and the results of these efforts?
Ho Duc Hoa: We always fought against things that were unreasonable or against the rules and regulations of the [Nam Ha] detention center. As I said, some issues have been resolved, but many have not: first, the right to read the scriptures daily; Second, contaminated water; Third, we asked for the toilet to come out of the cell (when someone used the toilet, others suffered from the smell) and; Fourth, we asked to be moved to a bigger cell with more space and light. However, none of these issues had been resolved by the time I was released. Among them, I think the right to read the scriptures daily is the most critical.
FRG: Tell us about the liyou of “orphan” prisoners, that is to say those who have no family support.
Ho Duc Hoa: You are right. “Orphan” detainees are those who do not receive food or receive very little food from their family. These people are completely dependent on the food provided by the detention center, which certainly does not have enough nutrients. As the prisoners have to work every day while their food is poor, their health often goes from bad to worse. Some kind inmates share food with the “orphans”, but their kind act, of course, cannot help much. Most “orphan” prisoners belong to ethnic minorities. They were also condemned for political reasons.
FRG: Yes you cold send a message to your prisoners who are fighting for democracy in Vietnam, what would you say?
Ho Duc Hoa: Since my release, I have had in my mind the images of detainees whom I know personally or not, but who are still being held in detention centers in Vietnam. The very first are those who shared the same prison with me like Le Dinh Luong, Nguyen Nang Tinh, Pham Van Troi, Nguyen Van Nghiem, Nguyen Viet Dung and Vo Quang Thuan.
I would like to say to them: you must take good care of your health, both mental and physical, and that we will stay with you, pray for you and continue our advocacy efforts for your release and better care, especially for those who have serious health problems. I will pray for you and wish you health and strong determination despite the harsh prison environment.
FRG: Now that therewe have arrived in the United States, what is your plan for now?
Ho Duc Hoa: As you all know, what brought me to the United States was my health issues. My health has seriously deteriorated since 2017. Also due to my health issues, I have not been able to say hello and express my gratitude to our audience until today where I feel a little better. Therefore, my first and most important plan now is to improve my mental and physical health.
Translated by Anna Vu.