Prisoner of conscience Ho Duc Hoa, who was sentenced to 13 years in prison in January 2013 on the charge of “conducting activities to overthrow the people’s government,” was set free and flown to the U.S. on May 1l, the eve of the Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Minh Chinh’s trip to Washington D.C. for a U.S. summit with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Despite suffering health problems from poor conditions in jail, the Christian Hoa shared with RFA his experiences as a political prisoner in Vietnam, a one-party Communist state that has little tolerance for dissent.
RFA: Congratulations on being released and starting a new life in the U.S. Could you please share with us your feelings when you arrived here?
Ho Duc Hoa: When I just landed in the U.S., the land of freedom, the first feeling came to me was that I missed my mother; my lost father, who passed away when I was in prison; and my younger sibling, who also died when I was in prison. I also thought of those who had supported and advocated for me to be released. I remembered the staff from the U.S. Embassy [in Hanoi] and the State Department who received me and organized my trip to the U.S.
Now I would like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude and send my prayers to those who I may or may not know in person but who had always supported me until I was released. I don’t know how to return your favor except to ask God to bless you, and wish you all health, peace and safety.
RFA: In your time in Vietnam, it seems that you have been transfered among various prisons. What can you say about the life of political prisoners in those places?
Ho Duc Hoa: In fact, I have lived in four detention centers, of which three were temporary ones and the last was a permanent one. The first one was B34 Detention Center in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). The second was Detention Center No. 34 in Hanoi, and the third was Nghi Kim Detention Center in the central province of Nghe An. The last one where I stayed for the longest time was Nam Ha Detention Center in the northern province of Ha Nam.
Among them, the detention center in Nghe An province was the worst in terms of living conditions.
I lived in the areas for political prisoners, which were separated from the places for ordinary prisoners. I quickly recognized discrimination towards political prisoners right after arriving at each detention center. For example, we had to live in hot and tiny cells and lie next to the toilet. The water was so contaminated that we often got sore eyes and became itchy after having a shower. We had made a lot of complaints, of which some had been addressed but many just dropped into silence without any response.
RFA: 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: Actually, when I was being held at temporary detention centers, I was allowed to receive scriptures and read them daily. However, things changed since 2020, when I was at Nam Ha Detention Center. They tightened the policy and only allowed me to read scriptures once a week–every Sunday.
As I strongly demanded the right to read scriptures on a daily basis, they issued a document accusing me of violating the detention center’s rules. Then I went on a 10 day hunger strike to fight for the right to read 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 been deteriorating significantly since then.
RFA: Could you tell us more about other inmates’ fight for their rights and the outcomes of these efforts?
Ho Duc Hoa: We always fought against things which were unreasonable or contradictory to the rules and regulations of the [Nam Ha] detention center. As I said, some issues have been resolved but many haven’t: Firstly, the right to read scriptures daily; Secondly, the contaminated water; Thirdly, we requested to have the toilet moved out of the cell (when someone used the toilet, others suffered from the smell) and; Fourthly, we requested to be moved to a larger cell with more space and light. However, none of these issues had been addressed at the time I was set free. Among them, I think the right to read scriptures daily is the most critical.
RFA: Tell us about the lives of ‘orphan’ prisoners, i.e. those who don’t have family support.
Ho Duc Hoa: You are right. ‘Orphan’ prisoners are the ones who don’t receive supplies or get very little supplies from their family. These people fully depend on the food provided by the detention center, which certainly does not have sufficient nutrients. As prisonsers have to work everyday while their food is poor, their health often goes from bad to worse. Some kind inmates do share food with the ‘orphans,’ but their kind act, of course, cannot help much. Most of the ‘orphan’ prisoners are ethnic minority people. They were also convicted for political reasons.
RFA: If you could send a message to your inmates who fight for democracy in Vietnam, what would you say?
Ho Duc Hoa: Since I was released, my mind has been full of the images of the inmates who I know in person, or not in person, but are still held in detention centers in Vietnam. The very first ones are those who have shared the same prison with me such as 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 should take good care of your health, both mentally and physically, and that we’ll stay with you, pray for you and continue our advocacy efforts to get you released, as well as better care, especially for those with serious health issues. I’ll pray for you and wish you health and strong determination despite the harsh prison environment.
RFA: Now that you have arrived in the U.S, what is your plan for the time being?
Ho Duc Hoa: As you all know, the key thing that brought me to the U.S. was my health concerns. My health has seriously deteriorated since 2017. Also because of my health conditions, I could not say hello and express my gratitude to our audience until today when I feel a little bit better. Therefore, my first and most important plan now is to improve my health both mentally and physically.
Translated by Anna Vu.
View the interview reported by Radio Free Asia here.