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Vietnam hunger strike tests official intimidation

Wednesday - 6/19/2013, 7:56am  ET

In this photo taken Monday, June 17, 2013, lawyer Nguyen Thi Duong Ha stands in the courtyard of her home in downtown Hanoi, Vietnam. Her husband Cu Huy Ha Vu is entering the fourth week of a prison hunger strike to protest alleged poor treatment. The statues seen in her background are of Vu's father, the poet Cu Huy Can, left, and his uncle Xuan Dieu, also a famous poet (right). Vu was jailed after suing the prime minister and calling for multiparty democracy. His strike comes amid an intensifying crackdown on dissident, and illustrates how the government's most outspoken critics speak out despite threats to their health and safety. (AP Photo/Mike Ives)

MIKE IVES
Associated Press

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) -- Cu Huy Ha Vu's books come with pages torn out by prison guards. Only some of his letters reach home. He is not allowed to access evidence from his trial or to see his wife alone.

This treatment, described by Vu's wife, has driven the Vietnamese legal scholar to a hunger strike that is now in its fourth week. Nguyen Thi Duong Ha says her husband told her Saturday that he hasn't eaten since May 27, even though she brings him orange juice and chicken stock, and that he won't until the prison officially replies to his complaints.

Now she worries the hunger strike may exacerbate Vu's longstanding heart problems and provoke a stroke.

"I live in fear," she said. "I can't fall asleep because I'm afraid there may be a phone call with bad news."

Vu, the son of revolutionary poet Cu Huy Can, is among the many government critics who have been imprisoned as the Communist government, beset by economic troubles and complaints about corruption and inequality, cracks down on dissent. His hunger strike has drawn attention to the conditions dissidents face in prison and to his own 2011 conviction on charges that included conducting propaganda against the state, calling for multiparty government and demanding the abolishment of the party's leadership.

On Tuesday the U.S. Embassy and the London-based rights group Amnesty International both called for Vu's immediate release. Bloggers have rallied to his cause on the Internet, where Vietnamese continue to express dissent despite the arrests of three prominent bloggers in the past month.

"More and more, we are hearing about harsh treatment of prisoners of conscience in detention (in Vietnam), including solitary confinement, being moved from prison to prison without their families being informed, and inadequate food and health care," said Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International's researcher on Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

Vu, a 55-year-old, Sorbonne-educated lawyer, is among the ruling Communist Party's highest-profile critics. His father was not only a famous poet but the agriculture minister in the government of Vietnam's founding president, Ho Chi Minh.

Vu was arrested in 2010 after attempting to sue Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung twice -- first for approving a Chinese-built bauxite mining project in Vietnam's central highlands, and later for prohibiting the filing of class-action lawsuits. The first suit was rejected by a Hanoi court, and the second was ignored.

In his dramatic one-day trial in April 2011, Vu's lawyers walked out of the courthouse after a judge refused to read or distribute interviews Vu was accused of giving to foreign media, including the U.S. government-funded Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. He was sentenced to seven years in prison and three of house arrest.

Carl Thayer, a Vietnam expert at the University of New South Wales in Australia, said Vu's case "is an illustration of the counterproductive policies of the Vietnamese Communist regime that seek to intimidate and silence critics." He added that Vu's revolutionary background "only serves to undermine" the regime's legitimacy.

Ha said her husband went on a hunger strike because prison officials haven't responded to the official complaints he has issued in recent months. Vietnamese law requires the prison to respond to petitions within 90 days.

"He wants to be treated in accordance with the law," Ha said in a Hanoi restaurant Monday. "He's a lawyer and he knows that he hasn't done anything wrong."

Vu and his lawyers have complained officially that prison guards have prevented him from accessing evidence from his trial and from meeting privately with his wife when she visits the prison in northern Thanh Hoa province. He also wrote that a prison guard has tormented him by repeatedly opening his door.

Ha said some aspects of prison life have improved for her husband. His 20-square meter (215-square-foot) cell, which at first had no windows and just a rudimentary toilet, has been upgraded considerably in recent months.

Vietnam's state-run media has attempted to raise doubts that Vu is truly on a hunger strike through several recent newspaper and television reports. A doctor at the prison, for example, was quoted by People's Police newspaper Sunday as saying that Vu's health condition was normal.

Deputy prison chief Le Duy Sau told the online newspaper VnExpress that Vu's complaint about the guard opening his door was "completely paranoid," and that Vu would be allowed to see his wife privately -- if he repents for his crimes.

Sau added that Vu receives food from his family, but did not say whether he eats it. Prison officials could not be reached Tuesday, and the foreign ministry did not respond to a written request for comment.

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