Background Briefing

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III. Torture and Abuse in Detention and Police Custody

Human Rights Watch has collected numerous first-hand accounts of police torture of Montagnards in district and provincial police stations, jails, and prisons in Gia Lai, Dak Lak, Kon Tum, and Dak Nong provinces.

Torture of Suspected Activists

Many of the arrests carried out during the last four years in the Central Highlands have been of Montagnards suspected of supporting the movement for return of ancestral lands and religious freedom.  Hand phones and SIM cards, while now difficult to obtain, are regularly confiscated by the police, who may arrest the owner on suspicion of communicating with “traitorous elements” abroad.  Torture of suspected activists is regularly used by police in order to elicit names of others in the movement and pledges to cease all activities. 

For example, on April 10, 2004, police in Dak Nong province arrested a twenty-five-year-old Mnong man they suspected of being one of the organizers of the Easter protests.  During the demonstration, he was beaten and kicked by police officers.  “I was bleeding on my head and lip and kicked in my right side until I passed out,” he told Human Rights Watch in October 2004.  The police then tied him up, loaded him in a van and sent him to the district prison in Dak Mil.

During three days at the district, police officers tried to get him to confess that he was one of the leaders of the Easter demonstration.  As they interrogated him, they pulled out one of his toe nails, beat him repeatedly on his thighs with a rubber baton and boxed him in the face, knocking out one of his front teeth.  They brandished an AK-47 rifle and threatened him.

They asked me if I knew that weapon and said they would let me taste it.  They had a pile of electrical wire in front of me to threaten to shock me, but they didn’t do it.  They frequently use that method in Dak Mil––they soak people in water and then shock the person to unconsciousness.  Other people have told me this.

He was then transferred to the provincial prison at Dak Nong, where he was put into solitary confinement in a grimy dark cell with only a small slot near the ceiling for ventilation.  During interrogation sessions at the provincial prison he was severely beaten several times by police officers trying to extract names of other activists from him.

They asked me who the leader was.  I said no one was the leader, but because we suffer from prevention of our religion, travel restrictions, and land grabbing, that’s why we demonstrated.

They beat my head and used two hands to box my ears more than thirty times, until my face was bright red and my ears were bleeding.  They kicked me in the chest with their boots.  They wanted to squeeze out the information about the demonstrations.  At that time I thought I would soon die.  My knees had swollen up and my whole body ached and felt stiff.  It was difficult for me to move.

After five months’ detention he was released from prison, after receiving a final lecture from a district police officer.  “We beat the Americans, the French, FULRO,9 and Pol Pot,” the police officer said.  “You Montagnards are just a handful of people––how dare you oppose the government. If you all die, what will happen to your land then?”  He threatened the young man not to join any demonstration in the future and forced him to sign a pledge promising to cease all political and religious activities.  As soon as he could, the young man fled to Cambodia.

In another case, a twenty-one year old Jarai man was arrested and tortured in March 2004 at the district prison in Dak Doa, Gia Lai.  In an interview with Human Rights Watch in July 2004, the young man said he had been a messenger for the Dega movement in Vietnam, and that he had also helped several people buy hand phones and SIM cards.  He was tortured and interrogated for two hours before being detained in a dark, airless cell in the district prison for one month.

They tied me up by my hands and made me stand on my tiptoes.  Then they put a chair on my toes and sat on it.  They also stuck a pen in between my fingers and twisted it, one by one.  I lost consciousness.

Another Jarai man, thirty-six, who said he was an activist with the Dega church movement, described his arrest and torture by police in Dak Doa district in March 2003.  “I was on my way to another village with my little boy to attend a wedding when they arrested me,” he said.  More than a dozen policemen on motorcycles and in a jeep surrounded him, knocking him off his motorcycle:

They took me to the district police station, where they blindfolded me.  They sat me in a chair and forced me to hold my hands up in the air for almost seven hours.  Policemen on either side of me twisted pens between my fingers and beat my feet with a wooden stick.  At the same time they jabbed me in the ribs with their hands.  The worst part was that they forced my three-year-old son to sit on my lap the entire time, even though he was crying uncontrollably.

He was finally released at 7 pm and allowed to go home.  When police surrounded his house the next morning and tried to arrest him again, he fled.  He spent the next two years in hiding in the forest in Vietnam before fleeing to Cambodia at the end of April 2004.  He never saw his wife and son again.

Mistreatment of Deportees from Cambodia

Since 2001, Human Rights Watch has collected numerous first-hand accounts of mistreatment of Montagnard asylum seekers by Vietnamese authorities after they have been forcibly deported from Cambodia.  Hundreds of potential asylum seekers are arrested and deported from Cambodia each year before they are able to reach UNHCR protection.  New evidence obtained by Human Rights Watch, summarized below, confirms that such mistreatment is common and ongoing.

A Jarai man from Ayun Pah province said that he was arrested in April 2002 after being deported with fifty-six other Montagnards from Cambodia.  “The Khmer police sent us back in two trucks and two jeeps,” he said.  “We were sent to the border police for one night and then sent to Pleiku.”  He was detained in the provincial prison in Pleiku for one month.  During interrogation sessions by the police, they jabbed him in the forehead with the nose of a pistol more than fifteen times.

The blood would gush out, and they’d hit me again.  They did this from early morning until noon.  After they hit me, they interrogated me many times and forced me to sign documents pledging not to follow [U.S.-based Montagnard activist] Kok Ksor any more.

Another refugee who fled to Cambodia in 2003 had unsuccessfully tried to seek asylum there previously.  In December 2002, he was arrested and forcibly returned to Vietnam by Cambodian and Vietnamese border police, along with more 165 other asylum seekers.  Some of the Montagnards were released immediately, while others––including him––were beaten and detained for a week.  In an interview with Human Rights Watch in March 2004, he described what happened to him:

We were tortured.  They took the nails off some people’s hands. For me, they used pincers and twisted my fingers.  I was released after a week––they thought I was going to die––they saw blood coming out of my mouth.  I was bleeding a lot so they let me out.  About ten of us were released after a week, including little children.

As of March 2004, two of his cousins, who were arrested at the same time as him, remained in prison.  A third cousin, who was released in early 2004, returned to the village with two broken ribs.

An ethnic Jarai was deported from Ratanakiri with a large group of asylum seekers on the night of May 15, 2001.  On the Vietnamese side of the border, district police arrested about twenty members of his group, beating them with sticks, shoes, and electric shock batons during interrogation.

“They slapped my eyes, the side of my face and kicked me in the groin with their boot,” the man told Human Rights Watch in an interview in 2004.  He was placed in a two-meter square dark cell with the other twenty prisoners for eighteen days, during which time he was beaten five more times.  “There were no windows and no electric light,” he said.  “We had no clothes and had to defecate and sleep in there.  We were only given rice to eat; no salt.”

After his release, he was forced to appear on television, admitting his “guilt,” denouncing the Dega church movement, and urging others not to follow his “bad example.”  “I had to say that I had repented and quit the movement,” he said.  “They threatened and forced me to do this. They said if I did not go on television they would beat me and put me in jail.”

Arrest, Beating, and Imprisonment of Guides for Asylum Seekers

For several years now an informal “underground railroad” of Montagnard villagers in Vietnam has been assisting Montagnards hiding in the forest in Vietnam, as well as those fleeing to Cambodia.  If discovered, many of the guides and helpers face arrest, interrogation, torture, and imprisonment for as many as eight years on charges of “organizing illegal migration” under article 91 of Vietnam’s Penal Code.

A Mnong man from Dak Nong helped his father, a prominent Dega church activist, hide in the forest and then escape to Cambodia in early 2004.  In late April 2004, he was arrested by six police officers as he was returning home from his farm.  He was handcuffed and sent by jeep to the district jail.  He was not served an official warrant but police accused him of taking people across the border to Cambodia:

More than twenty people were arrested the same day as me.  There were four Montagnards in my cell who were beaten badly and injured.  One, a fifty-five year old man the same age as my father, had his ribs broken when police kicked him in the side.  Another man was hit in the face and kicked in the chest and beaten badly.  Afterwards, he was urinating blood.  Another man was kicked in the stomach and might have suffered a ruptured spleen.  Afterwards he couldn’t eat because his throat was swollen.  The fourth man was beaten around the ears and lost his hearing in both ears––he had also been helping people cross the border.

At midnight on his first day of detention he was called out of his cell for questioning by nine police officers until 2 a.m. 

They asked, ‘Where did you hide your father?’  I said my father just told me to take him far away and after that I went back home.  I didn’t know where he was going.  They slapped me in the ears and asked, ‘What did your father do?’  I said I didn’t know.  Then they hit me in the face, slapped me, and pushed me onto the floor.  They stepped on my throat and kicked me with their boots three times.  Before they returned me to my cell they said: ‘Think hard and report everything you did.’

He was interrogated several more times after that.  “Sometimes they beat me, and sometimes they just asked me questions and said they hoped that I would change my mind.  In the beginning they beat me badly.  When they finished interrogating me, they would write up an interrogation report.  If I signed it, I would be free, they said.  I was beaten because I didn’t tell the truth about my father.  Each time I just said, “I don't know.” 

Although never brought before a judge or formally charged, he was told that he would be sent to prison for eight years.  He was able to escape after one months’ detention on a day when the police guards got drunk.  He crossed the border to Cambodia in August 2004.

[9]  FULRO (Front Unifié de Lutte des Race Opprimées, or the United Struggle Front for the Oppressed Races) was an armed Montagnard resistance movement in the Central Highlands that died out in the early 1990s. 

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>January 2005