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Jailed War Veteran's Death in Vietnam Draws Condemnation

  • Marianne Brown

Catholic priest Father Nguyen Van Ly - who remains in prison, but is ill - sits in his room inside the Hue Archdiocese in Hue city, March 2010. (file photo)

Catholic priest Father Nguyen Van Ly - who remains in prison, but is ill - sits in his room inside the Hue Archdiocese in Hue city, March 2010. (file photo)

The prison death of a former soldier who fought for the South during the Vietnam War has sparked concern among international observers in Vietnam.

In a prison hospital on the outskirts of Hanoi, war veteran and political prisoner Truong Van Suong died only 25 days after returning from a year-long medical parole.

The former soldier, who fought for the former Republic of Vietnam, suffered from severe heart disease and high blood pressure. He was 68.

Human Rights Watch spokesman Phil Robertson condemned Vietnamese authorities for sending Suong back to jail.

"It's frankly cruel and inhuman to send a man that sick back to detention. I think it was because the Ministry of Public Security wanted to make an example of him," said Robertson.

Suong spent nearly half of his life, more than three decades, behind bars. After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, he was sent to a re-education camp for six years. Robertson said the length of time is significant.

"The fact that he was held from '75 to '81 indicated that he was someone of significant concern for the incoming government. There was systematic discrimination against former army and officials of the government of the former South Vietnam," he said. "There was an assessment of who needed to be in re-education for longer and shorter periods.

Following his release in 1981, Suong fled to Thailand where he joined The United Front of Patriotic Force for the Liberation of Vietnam. The group, now disbanded, tried to enter the country 10 times in three years. More than 20 members were arrested.

Suong was detained when he tried to land on the South coast in 1983. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. In a statement released to the Associated Press, Vietnam's Ministry of Foreign Affairs insisted Suong's health was stable when he was sent back to prison.

Nguyen Minh Thuyet, a former deputy in Vietnam's National Assembly, said generally speaking, prisoners who are seriously ill should be allowed to die at home. He says this is in line with Vietnamese customs and would help both the prisoners and their families.

Thuyet agrees that soldiers who fought for the regime in Saigon were unfairly treated after the war ended in 1975. He said those from revolutionary backgrounds, like workers or soldiers, would get better treatment than people from the city or members of the lower middle class.

He says bad treatment of soldiers who fought for the South or former government officials was a limitation of the period, adding now there is no discrimination against people or families who took part in the Southern government.

Suong is the second political prisoner to die in jail in recent months. On July 11, Nguyen Van Trai died in Southeast Vietnam after serving nearly 15 years for what the government called 'fleeing abroad in opposition to the people's administration". He was 74 and suffered from liver cancer. He died just five months before his term was up.

Robertson said political prisoners with serious health problems should be put at the front of the line for immediate and unconditional release.

He points to the case of human rights defender Father Nguyen Van Ly, who was sent back to jail after a year-long medical parole in July. The elderly priest suffered two strokes leaving him partially paralyzed.

"I don't know why the Ministry of Public Security are so paranoid about people exercising their right to freedom of expression," said Robertson. "It reflects, in my view, a level of insecurity within the Ministry of Public Security, about their hold on Vietnamese society that they view that even aged, severely sick men can somehow be a spark to cause unrest or discontent."

International observers are keeping a close eye on the health of Father Ly.