A rare glimpse of life in Vietnam’s secret jails

Inmates smuggle crafted animals, flowers and hearts out of solitary cells, which are an emotional lifeline for their parents

May 29, 2018 10:12 pm | Updated 10:12 pm IST - Hanoi

Close to the heart:  Nguyen Truong Chinh displays crafted animals made by his son  at his home in Hai Duong.

Close to the heart: Nguyen Truong Chinh displays crafted animals made by his son at his home in Hai Duong.

Nguyen Truong Chinh proudly holds up intricately crafted animals, flowers and hearts — secret gifts made from plastic bags by a son on Vietnam’s death row.

The palm-sized creations that his son and other inmates have furtively made and smuggled out of their solitary cells offer a rare glimpse of prison life in Vietnam, believed to be one of the world’s leading executioners.

They’re also an emotional lifeline for desperate parents fighting to free the children they say have been wrongly convicted. “Any time we receive the gifts from my son I feel like he’s here with me, like he’s come back home,” Mr. Chinh said, clenching his jaw to hold back tears.

His 35-year-old son Nguyen Van Chuong, convicted of murdering a police officer a decade ago, is one of a handful of prisoners known to have made the artwork that is officially banned on death row.

The families suspect they made the pieces with discarded plastic bags passed on by fellow prisoners, shredded and woven into figurines. They were once smuggled out by prisoners released after serving their terms but relatives stopped receiving them a few years ago, leading Mr. Chinh and other parents to fear guards have cracked down on the forbidden prison pastime.

They’re too scared to ask about the practice during brief monthly visits closely monitored by prison staff.

A fight for justice

But Mr. Chinh says the art still drives his decade-long fight to free his son, who he insists was nowhere near the scene of the crime he was convicted of. “When I see the animals, I know somehow that my son is stable enough to create these things, that he is mentally strong,” said Mr. Chinh, sitting with a bag full of documents on his son’s case. “They motivate our fight for justice.”

Little is known about Vietnam’s prison system, but in a rare report last year the Ministry of Public Security said 429 people were executed between August 2013 and June 2016.

That is an average of 147 per year — putting Vietnam among the world’s top executioners along with China and Iran.

Details about prison conditions are scarce and media access heavily restricted. But the law requires death row inmates to be held in solitary confinement and monitored around the clock. Prisoners deemed “dangerous” have one foot shackled for most of the day.

“In many cases, acts of torture, coupled with the denial of medical care, have resulted in deaths in custody that are almost never investigated by the authorities,” Andrea Giorgetta from International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) said.

No reason given

The MPS report said 36 death row inmates died behind bars between 2011 and 2016, without saying how.

In letters to his family, Chuong said he was tortured in custody: hung upside down and naked with a dirty sock in his mouth and beaten during interrogation. Police electrocuted his genitals and prodded him with needles until he confessed under duress, he wrote. Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry rejected allegations of torture as “false information” in a statement and said it does not do anything to harm the “honour and dignity” of inmates.

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