Nguyen Dang Minh Man is 30 years old, and has been in prison in Vietnam for a third of her adult life.
This month, I met her father, Nguyen Van Loi, who had come to Washington to talk about the fate of his daughter. Minh Man is one of at least 160 political prisoners the Vietnamese government convicted in the last few years under penal code provisions that criminalize criticism of the government. Her father came to Washington to raise awareness of his daughter’s case, a timely trip with the General Secretary of the Vietnam Community Party, Nguyễn Phú Trọng*, set to visit Washington in early July.
Minh Man was only 26 when she was arrested in 2011, charged under a provision that ostensibly blocks attempts to overthrow the government. The specific allegation against her? Painting graffiti “in order to incite people to protest.” The authorities also said she was a member of the exile dissident party Viet Tan. Minh Man was sentenced in 2013 to eight years in prison. Today she lives at Prison Camp # 5 at Thanh Hoa, a province in northern Vietnam.
“She started her activism when she was about 24,” her father told me. “She couldn’t accept the injustices all around.” She started to take part in protests against the government. “She had a camera and a motorbike. She would ride around to different places. She took pictures showing police brutality. She took pictures of protests. She took pictures of big fancy houses and apartment buildings built by corrupt government officials.”
Van Loi tries to visit her every month, though the prison is over 1,000 miles from their home in the southern Mekong Delta, a trip requiring four different train and bus lines. “It takes me 40 hours to get there,” he told me. “And sometimes I am not allowed to visit her. They tell me she’s violated a rule and is in solitary confinement.”
Van Loi is worried about his daughter’s treatment at the hands of guards. He told me that when he visits, he has to talk through glass, on a telephone—even as other non-political prisons are allowed to mingle with visitors freely in a yard. “There are two guards on my side. Two guards sitting on her side. And a fifth guard, who is wearing headphones, listening to you.”
Can they speak freely? “She can’t really say anything. Maybe she makes a comment, but it must be subtle.” She manages to whisper things when the guards let them say goodbye and hug, during a brief moment when they let him hand over items—food, clothing, toiletries—that he has brought from home. “She may say a few words to me, like ‘They’re only giving me rice and salt’ or ‘They put me in solitary for ten days.’”
Van Loi’s description is consistent with accounts about other political prisoners. Human Rights Watch has received credible reports from former prisoners that another prominent woman dissident in the same facility, Ta Phong Tan, was beaten by guards on at least one occasion in the last year. Tan, who Secretary of State John Kerry mentioned in a public statement on May 5, World Press Freedom Day, is currently on hunger strike.
Truong Minh Tam, another former prisoner at the same facility who accompanied Van Loi to the United States, told me that prisoners undertake hours of labor every day, sewing textiles, agricultural work, or cleaning and cooking for the guards, and must pay fees if they don’t meet work quotas. The authorities also routinely motivate or provoke ordinary prisoners to harass the political prisoners. As Tam told me: “There is an unwritten rule: those with long prison terms can earn days off their sentence if they do something for the guards, like instigating a political prisoner to fight, or making problems for them.” Ordinary prisoners will knock over dissidents’ food containers or stick their feet out to trip them when they are walking by. If fights break out, or even a verbal altercation, the political prisoners are then placed into solitary confinement, in a hot, dark, and damp room with the footprint of a coffin, for ten days, with only rice and a liter of water each day, and no water for bathing.
Van Loi’s anxieties about his daughter are heartbreaking, and his trip to Washington raises an important question: Why does the US government remain so keen in improving relations with Hanoi?
Make no mistake, the U.S. government knows Vietnam’s record, and has repeatedly criticized it. President Obama recently met with an exiled Vietnamese dissident in the White House. At the same time, the administration continues to warm its diplomatic ties—most recently, by relaxing bans on weapons sales.
The Obama administration insists that its efforts are meant to help spur Vietnam to improve its human rights record, but with evidence of real reform so hard to come by, one can rightly wonder if their theory of change is valid.
It’s time to adopt a tougher line. In a few weeks, when President Obama meets Trọng, the leader of Vietnam’s ruling party, he should ask him why his country’s government can’t start releasing prisoners like Ms. Minh Man. Obama should tell Trung that if Vietnam continues to treat critics as enemies, warming U.S.-Vietnam relations are going to hit a cold front.
John Sifton is Asia Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch.
*Name corrected from the original.