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Prisoners of Conscience

Tran Thi Nga – The Story of A Grassroots Human Rights Defender in Vietnam

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Tran Thuy Nga. Photo credits: SBTN.

She came from a poor family in rural areas of North of Vietnam, married young at nineteen years old and soon had children of her own.

Growing up, she did not have good opportunities for schooling.

As a young girl, her mother passed away when she was ten, and her father could not afford to continue sending her to school. After seventh grade, she began working and helped taking care of her younger siblings.

Her first marriage ended quickly. Her husband was abusive, he beat her, and did so very often.

She left him and became a single mother with two young children to bring up while not having a job.

Like many other people around her, she never heard of things like human rights.

Like them, she was too busy finding means to feed herself and her family.

But less than two decades later, she became a person who not only knows about human rights but also makes it her life mission to defend them.

Her name is Tran Thi Nga, who also goes by her blogger’s name Tran Thuy Nga.

The road to becoming a human rights defender for Nga was influenced by her own life experiences.

After divorcing her first husband and returning to her hometown with her two children, she began a new chapter in life with 5kg of rice borrowed from a cousin.

She used half of the borrowed rice to cook porridge for her starving kids and turned the rest into rice flour to make steam rice rolls, selling them to the neighbors and make a profit of fewer than 1 USD a day. With that, she was able to support her children and herself for a while.

Nga soon realized she could not raise her children by just selling steamed rice rolls, so she borrowed some money and applied to go to Taiwan as a migrant worker.

Unfortunately, Nga got injured almost immediately after she arrived and started work. Alone in a strange country and unable to receive compensation for the injuries, she again became desperate about the future.

However, with the help of a Vietnamese priest, Nga was able to negotiate a settlement with her previous employer for her work-related injuries.

Her life took a totally different turn from that point as she later told her friends, because the best thing she had received from that experience was not money, but learning how to fight for one’s own rights and stand up against injustice.

Returning home around 2008, Nga slowly went on a path that shaped her into a human rights defender.

She joined the protests against China’s aggression in the summer of 2011, which was a turning point for the independent civil society movement in Vietnam.

She stood with land-grabs victims in Hanoi and assisted the family of death-row inmate Ho Duy Hai in their fight for Hai’s release.

Wearing a traditional Vietnamese dress and a bright smile on her face, Nga also was one of the faces that stood out during the march against the government’s decision to cut down more than 6,700 trees in Hanoi in the spring of 2015.

Her neighbors now remember her fondly as someone who would always stand up for them against the police’s wrongdoings.

But she pays a heavy price for standing up for others and against the government’s wrongs.

Nga was arrested on January 21, 2017, just a few days before Tet – the Vietnamese celebration of the Lunar New Year. And two days before Christmas 2017, in a one-day appeal trial, the government affirmed her conviction and the 9 years imprisonment sentencing.

Long before the 2017 arrest and trial, her children and she had been a victim of police abuse many times. Their house was vandalized and her leg was broken when plainclothes police attacked her with metal rods a few years back.

Nevertheless, the year 2017 was especially challenging for those who work as human rights activists in Vietnam.

The government seemed to have increased its oppression with over 20 individual cases of activists being arrested and charged with anti-state crimes which carry long and harsh sentencing.

Mother Mushroom aka Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh and Tran Thi Nga were among those who targeted by the recent government’s crackdown.

Both were bloggers who spoke about social injustice like Formosa environmental disaster and police brutality on social media like Facebook and Youtube.

Both are mothers with young children.

And yet they both received some of the harshest sentences handed out to dissidents in recent years. They were tried in 2017 and got sentenced to 10 years and 9 years imprisonment, respectively, for propaganda against the state under Article 88 of Vietnam’s Penal Code.

Recently, the government had ordered to have them relocate to prison centers that are hundreds of miles away from their hometowns, which also meant it might be impossible for their young children to visit them.

In February 2018 and right before the Vietnamese New Year – Tet, a group of Vietnamese activists pleaded with both Nga and Quỳnh in a public petition that they should consider seeking political asylum for the sake of their children. Both have been unwavering.

Tran Thuy Nga may not be the type of activists who are being seen as the leading voices behind some of the more well-known campaigns, such as “We Are One” or “We Want to Know” on social media in Vietnam.

Yet, in her own way, her life and works could really help people understand how one ordinary person in Vietnam begins her journey towards self-empowerment, to stand up and defend universal human rights.

Prisoners of Conscience

Political Prisoner Ngo Hao Suffered Minor Stroke In Prison, Health Deteriorated

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Ngo Hao at his appeal hearing in December 2013. Photo courtesy: RFI.

On January 30, 2018, The Vietnamese received information that political prisoner Ngo Hao had suffered a minor stroke in prison. According to his wife, the prison’s center in An Diem, Quang Nam Province did not inform his family directly.

The family learned about his conditions on social media when the brother of Hoang Duc Binh, another prisoner of conscience, posted about it on Facebook.

During the last family visit on January 27, 2019, the family observed that “he was very sick and shaking a lot while walking.”

In January 2015, the government relocated him from Phu Yen Province – his hometown – to An Diem prison center in Quang Nam Province.

Relocation of political prisoners to prison centers hundreds of miles away from their hometowns is a common tactic used by the Vietnamese authorities, making visitations increasingly difficult for the family.

In Hao’s situation, his wife is also suffering from chronic disease, and the visitations have taken a toll on her health.

Ngo Hao was arrested in February 2013, tried and convicted in September 2013 under Article 79 of the 1999 Penal Code for “subverting against the people’s government.”

He was sentenced to 15-year-imprisonment and five-year probation thereafter.

His appeal was denied in December 2013 after less than two hours of hearing where neither his lawyer or Hao was allowed to fully state their defense.

He was held incommunicado prior to the hearing and his family was only notified of the appeal on the day it happened.

The government alleged that Hao received money from an overseas Vietnamese group to plot a Jasmine revolution-type in Vietnam to overturn the Vietnamese Communist Party.

The evidence produced by the prosecution consisted of writings he published online regarding using UN reporting mechanisms to assist political prisoners and contacting Human Rights Watch to report on human rights violations in Vietnam.

Hao did help 14 members of Hoa Hao Buddhist sect to send their communication about human rights violations to the UN.

Hao was an army officer of the former Republic of South Vietnam who was imprisoned from 1977 until 1997 – when he was released for medical reasons.

Article 79 of the 1999 Penal Code had been amended; the new code section for “subversion” now is Article 109 of the 2005 Penal Code.

Ngo Hao’s case could benefit from the same argument which the lawyer for Tran Huynh Duy Thuc has claimed, that under the new penal code, the acts committed by the defendant was only “in preparation to commit a crime” according to Section 3, Article 109. This argument, if suceeds, could reduce the maximum prison time to five years.

Notwithstanding the above legal argument, under international human rights law, the imprisonment of a person for the peaceful exercise of their individual rights – such as the freedom of expression – has been declared arbitrary arrest and detention.

Ngo Hao’s wife and son are asking the international community to pay attention to his case and demand an immediate and unconditional release.

Ngo Hao could be one of the oldest political prisoners serving a sentence in Vietnam right now. Born in 1948, he is turning 71 this year. Hao would now be in his sixth year of the 15-year-term.

They are afraid that Hao would not be able to make it until the end of his 15-year-imprisonment term after observing his deteriorating health conditions during the last visit earlier this month.

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