This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
The families of political prisoners in Vietnam have written an open letter to U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris prior to her visit to the Southeast Asian country later this month, asking her to pressure Hanoi to release them from their lengthy sentences.
When she arrives on Aug. 24, Harris will become the first U.S. Vice President to travel to Vietnam since the unification of the country under the Communist North in 1975.
The letter, signed by four prisoners’ wives, informs Harris that many prisoners of conscience are jailed for publicly disagreeing with the government, “which does not happen in a democratic country like the United States.”
“We write this letter to plead with you, to please spend some of your invaluable time to consider our request, to speak to the government of Vietnam, asking them to reconsider the injustices, to release these prisoners of conscience during the surge of COVID-19,” read the letter.
They sought the release of prisoners “so the old mother may still see her son, the young wife can again cry on her husband’s shoulder, so the two-digit-prison-terms will not take away the life of one man and the livelihood of his whole family. All because they dare to speak the truth, a very normal action in any democratic nation,” the letter said.
“We, the families of the political prisoners see that our husbands and sons are suffering in prisons,” Nguyen Thi Kim Thanh, the wife of political prisoner Truong Minh Duc told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
Duc, a journalist, labor rights activist, and member of the Brotherhood of Democracy advocacy group, is serving 12 years for “attempting to overthrow the government,” under article 79 of the 1999 penal code.
Thanh said that life in prison was very harsh and takes a toll on the health of prisoners, especially on those, like her husband, who were jailed with preexisting health conditions and are at increased risk as the country continues to fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
While in prison, Duc has joined several hunger strikes to protest living conditions like extreme heat and poor hygiene. He has suffered a stroke and is believed to have high blood pressure and heart disease, according to the 88 Project website.
“We posted this letter online with the wish that the vice president could see it and would urge Vietnam to release our husbands and sons to reunite with their families,” Thanh said.
“Secondly, I hope that she will urge the government of Vietnam to provide the COVID-19 vaccine to prisoners just like everyone on the outside. We also hope that the vice president could make the Vietnamese government change their prison policies so that their families could call them twice a month instead of once a month, like now,” she said.
The letter was also signed by the wives of Nguyen Nang Tinh, serving 11 years for his Facebook posts critical of the government; Luu Van Vinh, serving 15 years for spreading information about a 2016 toxic chemical spill at the Formosa steel plant; and Tran Duc Thach, an author serving 12 years for his writings that expose the corruption, injustice and human rights abuses of the Vietnamese government.
It was initially shared by the families on social media and circulated among the activist community in Vietnam. An English translation addressed to the Office of Vice President in Washington provides contact information for the Virginia-based Voice of Vietnamese Americans advocacy group.
On Tuesday, 60 Vietnamese-American pro-democracy, religious, media, and community organizations co-signed a letter to Harris emphasizing grave concerns about the overall human rights situation in Vietnam.”
“During the pandemic, the Vietnamese government detained over 50 bloggers, journalists, and human rights defenders,” the letter said. Hanoi put these people at risk by “placing them in unhygienic, confined places,” it added.
According to the California-based Vietnam Human Rights Network, Vietnam is currently detaining around 300 political prisoners.
The letters join several others from U.S. lawmakers and rights groups focusing on Vietnam that urge Harris as well as the State Department not to ignore human rights issues in dialogue with Hanoi.
In an Aug. 4 letter to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Sen. John Cornyn acknowledged Vietnam’s strategic role in the Asia-Pacific region, but also raised Hanoi’s “troubling” record on rights and freedoms, as captured in the 2021 State Department’s Country Report on Vietnam.
“It is of paramount importance that we hold the Vietnamese government accountable for its responsibility to guarantee human rights, religious freedom, and property security for its citizens. To that end, I ask that you provide an explanation for what the State Department is doing to engage with Vietnam on these issues.”
Harris is scheduled visit Vietnam from Aug. 24-26, with talks expected to focus on regional security in the South China Sea, where China has encroached on territorial waters and maritime resources claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, and other countries in the region.
Talks will also cover U.S. assistance to Vietnam in containing the spread of COVID-19 amid a new surge of infections in the country of 99 million people.