Imprisoned Vietnamese pro-democracy activist begins hunger strike

    Nguyen Quoc Quan protesting in Washington, D.C., in 2010.

    Today, my husband will spend his 59th birthday far from his two children. We won’t be celebrating with our usual traditions: a modest cake, the quiet dinner at a restaurant, a reading from his many love letters. Instead, he sits in a Vietnamese jail cell, charged with “attempting to overthrow the government.”

    He is denied access to a lawyer or even visitors, save for monthly U.S. consular visits that are controlled and censored. As a scholar, he is starved for a pen and paper, save for occasionally approved books. With little legal recourse and only a passing acknowledgement from Vietnamese authorities of his “crimes,” he began a hunger strike today until his right to an attorney is recognized. He has fasted on several earlier occasions to protest the violation of his rights in jail.

    My husband is Dr. Nguyen Quoc Quan, a mathematician, a former high school teacher and a long-time activist, whose dream of building schools for poor children and empowering the youth began long after he came to the United States 30 years ago. He is a member of the pro-democracy party Viet Tan, a political movement outlawed by Vietnam’s one-party state.  He was arrested on April 17, 2012, at the airport in Saigon.

    This birthday will mark the seventh month of my husband’s imprisonment in a bleak prison for his work in promoting democracy and human rights. For four months he was held, without access to an attorney, “to be investigated for terrorism.”

    I was hopeful that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Hanoi in July would bring some reprieve, a stronger stance on Vietnam’s imprisoned voices of conscience. But he was not released and even more human rights activists have filled Vietnam’s jail cells.

    Labeled a “terrorist” by state media, his weapons of choice are the principles of  Martin Luther King Jr. as he has dedicated himself in recent years to training activists in methods of civil disobedience. As if realizing how baseless their allegation was, the authorities changed the charge to “subversion” in August, which still carries the maximum penalty of death. No written warrant or official notice was ever produced; any plea for legal rights has been squashed.

    As painful as this ordeal has been on our family, I am even more saddened to know that my husband is just one of the many human rights defenders who now languish in Vietnamese prisons. Citizen journalists, bloggers and dissidents are held in prolonged pre-trial detention without any family visitation or access to legal defense. Some, like the songwriter Viet Khang, who was secretly taken away before Christmas in 2011, are sentenced to long prison terms under the pretense of protecting national security.

    The Vietnamese government’s unique definition of terrorism and its whimsical application of national security laws are the latest tools in its arsenal to suppress the fathers, mothers, faith leaders and young activists who are now emboldened to voice and act on their dissent.

    This is not my husband’s first birthday in a Vietnamese jail cell. In 2007, he was detained for six months for distributing flyers about nonviolent struggle, a time that was fraught with uncertainties but made him a more resolute human rights advocate.

    I am frequently asked why he would continue with his advocacy work, despite the Vietnamese government’s increasing crackdown on human rights defenders. It’s hard to imagine how he could ever stop.

    He once said: “Watching poor farmers and activists being beaten by public security makes me want to be with them. I know each of them are much stronger than any regime if only they had confidence and knew how to peacefully and collectively defend their rights.”

    I’m heartbroken to know that he’ll once again miss another birthday with our two sons, but I’m even more determined to fight for his release and make his cause known. I am grateful for many in Congress who are champions for Vietnam’s many human rights defenders and have called for my husband’s release. But more needs to be done. This injustice against my husband should not be tolerated.

    With the upcoming U.S.-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue in December, I urge the Obama administration to call for not just my husband’s freedom, but for the release of many others unjustly detained as well.

    The Vietnamese government continues to brazenly challenge the United States by arbitrarily detaining not only its own innocent, peaceful human rights activists but U.S. citizens as well. At this point, the issue is more important than just economics or politics. It’s about principle.

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