Vietnam: Catholic activist Dau Van Duong free after three years in prison and beatings

He was convicted in 2012 for “propaganda against the state”. He was severely beaten in his cell, risking death. The authorities confiscated his Bible, returning it only after a prolonged hunger strike. “I’m lucky to be alive,” he says, and promises to continue to fight against injustice.

» 10/03/2014 VIETNAM

Hanoi (AsiaNews) – The Vietnamese government has released the 26 year old Catholic activist Antonie Dau Van Duong, after more than three years in prison where he risked death from repeated beatings, humiliation and abuse at the hands of prison guards.

The guards even confiscated his Bible in an attempt to undermine his faith. He was part of a group of four Christians, charged and convicted in May 2012 for “propaganda against the state” following the distribution of pro-democracy leaflets. The four were punished according to the infamous Article 88 of the Vietnamese Penal Code, a provision which – according to human rights organizations – is often used to arrest bloggers, advocates and critics of the communist leadership and the state.

The judges sentenced him to three years and six months in prison; However, the authorities ordered his release and 18 additional months of probation. Interviewed by Radio Free Asia (RFA) shortly after returning home to Nam Dan, Nghe An province, Duong said he is “lucky because I’m still alive,” after having suffered terrible violence in the Nghi Kim detention center.

The guards, he said, “allowed other inmates to beat me, two did from 10 pm to 4 am.” I thank God, he adds, “that I’m still standing here today. I might have died at that time. My body hurt terribly, but I kept praying and recovered.”

Later, Duong was transferred to Prison No. 5 in neighboring Thanh Hoa province, where he served the remainder of his jail term. Duong said he was placed in a cell along with “drug dealers, robbers and murderers”, although for short periods he spent time with other political prisoners. The prison guards seized his Bible, which was returned to him only after a prolonged hunger strike.

At the time of his sentencing, human rights groups and international organizations termed the trial a shameful farce and stated he had been convicted “without even a shred of evidence.” As members of the Catholic community in Vinh, the four had participated in volunteer activities including donating blood, helping orphans and natural disaster victims, and encouraging women not to have abortions.

Duong says  that prison authorities said they had decided to release him, claiming he had been effectively “re-educated” while serving his sentence.”In fact, I was not re-educated at all,” he states promising to fight against injustice, along with other Catholic activists.

For the past several years, Vietnam has seen a harsh campaign by the government against dissidents, bloggers, religious leaders (including Buddhists), Catholic activists or entire communities. Last year for example, media and government conducted a smear campaign in the Diocese of Vinh targeting the local bishop and faithful.

The government’s crackdown has also touched people whose only guilt is that of claiming the right to religious freedom and respect for citizens’ civil rights.

In 2013 alone, Vietnamese authorities arrested dozens of activists for crimes “against the state,” based on a rule that human rights groups have branded as too “generic” and “vague”.

With more than six million followers, Catholicism is the second largest religion in the country, after Buddhism. The community has been at loggerheads with Hanoi, in most cases over issues related to land ownership or ecclesiastical goods that the government wants to seize.