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(New York) - The Vietnamese government released the award-winning writer Tran Khai Thanh Thuy from prison yesterday, but continues to hold dozens of other peaceful activists in prison or under house arrest, Human Rights Watch said today.

Thuy, who was arrested on April 21, was released after a sudden and unpublicized trial before the Hanoi People’s Court on January 31. She was sentenced to nine months and 10 days, or time served, on charges of “causing public disorder” under article 245 of Vietnam’s penal code.

Winner of the 2007 prestigious Hellman/Hammett prize for persecuted writers, Thuy, 47, is among close to 40 peaceful activists – including more than 10 women – who have been imprisoned or placed under house arrest during the last 18 months in Vietnam. They include human rights lawyers, opposition party members, underground publishers, independent church activists, cyber-dissidents, and labor union leaders.

“Like the dozens of other peaceful dissidents who have been jailed, Tran Khai Thanh Thuy should never have been arrested in the first place,” said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. “The Vietnamese government should stop locking people up simply for expressing their views.”

During her more than nine months of detention at Thanh Liet Detention Center (known as B14 Camp) in Hanoi, authorities prohibited Thuy from receiving visits or letters from her family. According to her family, authorities rejected requests that Thuy, who suffers from tuberculosis and diabetes, be transferred to the Dong Da Tuberculosis Center in Hanoi for better medical treatment. Instead, her health worsened and she developed rheumatism after months of sleeping without a blanket on the cement floor of a small cell, when Hanoi’s winter temperatures drop below 7 degrees Celsius (45 degrees Fahrenheit).

A well-known author, poet and journalist, Thuy has written numerous novels, satirical essays and political essays criticizing the communist regime. Thuy was one of dozens of activists who emerged during a period of slightly loosened government controls over dissent in 2006 prior to Hanoi’s hosting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in November 2006 and its acceptance into the World Trade Organization at the end of 2006.

In September 2006, Thuy joined the editorial staff of To Quoc (Fatherland) Review, a dissident bulletin printed clandestinely in Vietnam and circulated on the internet. In October 2006, she was involved in forming the Independent Workers’ Union, a group prohibited by law in Vietnam, where all unions must belong to the party-controlled union confederation. In December 2006, she founded an association for victims of land confiscation in Vietnam (Hoi Dan Oan Viet Nam).

Prior to her arrest, Thuy was frequently detained, interrogated and harassed by authorities. In November 2006, she was dismissed from her job as a journalist. During the APEC meetings that month, she was locked in her house by authorities and remained under effective house arrest afterwards. On March 10, 2007, police searched her home and confiscated her computer, cell phone, and hundreds of complaint letters filed by farmers protesting loss of their land.

After Thuy was arrested at a bus station in Hanoi on April 26, 2007, she was charged initially with conducting anti-government propaganda (article 88) and disturbing social order (article 245), but only the second indictment was maintained at yesterday’s trial. Other women imprisoned, detained, or placed under house arrest during the past 18 months include:

  • Le Thi Cong Nhan, 29. An activist lawyer who was a founding member of the Committee for Human Rights in Vietnam and spokesperson for the Vietnam Progression Party, arrested in March 2007. She is currently serving a three-year sentence at Camp 7 in Thanh Hoa province under article 88 (conducting anti-government propaganda). Last month, she went on a one-week hunger strike to protest an apparent pattern of deliberate harassment by her cellmates.
  • Tran Thi Le Hong, 49. One of the founders of the United Workers and Farmers Association, arrested in November 2006. She is currently serving a three-year sentence in Dong Nai province under article 258 (abusing democratic freedoms –of speech, press, belief, religion, assembly, association to “infringe upon the interests of the State”).
  • Nguyen Thi Tuyet. A member of the United Workers and Farmers Association, arrested in November 2006 and detained in Dong Nai province. She was released in December 2007 after more than a year in jail without trial.
  • Tran Thi Thuy Trang, 33. A lawyer and associate of lawyer Le Quoc Quan, arrested in last March and detained for six months at a detention center in Ho Chi Minh City. She was released in September 2007, but remains under surveillance.
  • Hoang Thi Anh Dao, 22. Secretary of the Vietnam Progression Party, arrested in February 2007. Last March, she was sentenced to a two-year suspended sentence under article 88. She remains under three years of probation.
  • Le Thi Le Hang, 45. A member of the Vietnam Progression Party, arrested in February 2007 and sentenced to an 18-month suspended prison sentence under article 88 and released on parole. She remains under three years of probation.
  • Ho Thi Bich Khuong, 35. A farmers’ rights advocate, arrested in April 2007 in Nghe An province, where she is currently being held at the administrative detention center in Nam Dan district, Nghe An province under article 88.
  • Duong Thi Tron, 60. A member of the independent Hoa Hao Buddhist Church, arrested in October 2006. In May 2007, she was sentenced to four years in prison in Dong Thap province, along with four other Hoa Hao believers convicted on charges of causing public disorder (article 245).
  • Lu Thi Thu Duyen. A participant in farmers’ protests and member of pro-democracy group Block 8406, she was placed under six months of house arrest in December 2007 in Ho Chi Minh City.
  • Lu Thi Thu Trang (sister of Lu Thi Thu Duyen). A participant in farmers’ protests and member of pro-democracy group Block 8406, she was placed under six months of house arrest in December 2007 in Ho Chi Minh City.
  • Bui Thi Kim Thanh. A lawyer who assisted farmers with land-rights complaints, she was arrested in November 2006 and involuntarily committed to a mental hospital for nine months. Released in July 2007, she remains under surveillance.

While the Vietnamese government refuses to release information about its prison population, it is estimated that there are hundreds of religious and political prisoners in Vietnam who have been imprisoned for their religious beliefs, calling for democratic reforms, participating in peaceful demonstrations, or trying to flee to Cambodia to seek political asylum.

The arrests and imprisonments continue. On January 29, a court in Ho Chi Minh City sentenced two young men to six years in prison and three years of probation for allegedly distributing leaflets calling for an end to the ruling Communist Party. The two men, Truong Quoc Huy, 28 – previously jailed for participating in an online democracy chat group – and Hang Tan Phat, 24, were charged under article 88 of Vietnam’s penal code for conducting anti-government propaganda.

“Hundreds of religious and political prisoners remain behind bars in Vietnam,” said Richardson. “Despite its membership in the UN Security Council and its claims to respect human rights, Vietnam continues to criminalize peaceful dissent, as well as unsanctioned religious groups, opposition parties and independent trade unions.”

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