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Case Information: Nguyen Dan Que
Nguyen Dan Que
DATE OF ARREST:March 17, 2003

Summary and Current Status

Nguyen Dan Que is a Vietnamese endocrinologist. He has been arrested three times and has spent a total of twenty years in jail solely for peacefully expressing his opinion. Most recently, in January 2005, he was released from prison after being incarcerated for nearly two years. However, Dr. Que remains deprived of many of his fundamental freedoms. Shortly after he was interviewed via telephone by Voice of America in March 2005, 10 security guards were posted outside his house. Since then his house has remained under 24 hour surveillance by security guards. Dr. Que reportedly has been informed that he must let the security guards know any time he plans to leave his home. His Internet line has been cut, his mail is monitored, and he does not have a working telephone line. Anyone who tries to visit him—with the exception of international diplomats—is questioned and harassed by the guards.

Furthermore, the Vietnamese authorities have refused to return Dr. Que’s medical license to him—thereby precluding him from resuming his medical work—and have also failed to reissue his household registry documents and residency permit. It is our understanding that household registry documents are required to legally reside in one’s home, lawfully hold a job, attend a state school, receive public health care, vote, and formally challenge administrative abuses, and that residency permits are required for travel. Because Dr. Que has no form of personal identification, he is afraid to leave his home for fear of being arrested on the street. (It is our understanding that Vietnamese citizens are required to carry some form of official identification at all times when outside of their homes.)


Dr. Que is a Vietnamese endocrinologist. He received his medical degree from Saigon University, where he specialized in thyroid diseases and diabetes. Under the sponsorship of the World Health Organization, he conducted research in Paris, Brussels, and London on thyroid diseases and the medical use of radio-isotopes before returning to Vietnam in 1974 to lecture at Saigon University and establish an endocrine unit. In 1975 Dr. Que was appointed director of the medical department at Cho-Ray Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City. He also worked in a free medical clinic for the poor at Cho-Ray Hospital. Because the clinic was seriously overcrowded, he created a second clinic nearby.

While working at Cho-Ray Hospital, Dr. Que criticized the government's health care policies, which he said discriminated against the poor. He reportedly was warned by the government to cease his criticisms. When he continued to speak out, he was arrested in 1978 and held without charge or trial for 10 years under extremely harsh conditions. In 1988, he was released from prison in an amnesty.

Two years later, on May 11, 1990, Dr. Que founded the Vietnamese Non-Violent Movement for Human Rights and issued a "manifesto" appealing to the Vietnamese people and all citizens of the world to support his nonviolent struggle for freedom and respect for basic human rights in Vietnam. One month later, in June 1990, Dr. Que was rearrested. One and a half years later, in November 1991, he was charged with "activities aimed at overthrowing the People’s government." In a half day trial, during which he was denied legal representation and the right to defend himself, he was convicted and sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment. Dr. Que was held at Xuan Loc Prison camp, where conditions were extremely harsh. As a result, his health deteriorated significantly.

In August 1998, Dr. Que was released from prison in a large-scale presidential amnesty. He had originally been offered his freedom on condition that he agree to leave Vietnam immediately. When Dr. Que refused, he reportedly was placed in a disciplinary cell and chained to the floor for four months in an unsuccessful effort to pressure him to accept the government's offer. Following widespread international pressure, the government finally agreed to release Dr. Que and allow him to return to his home in Ho Chi Minh City. However, he was immediately placed under what amounted to house arrest and was deprived of virtually all of his fundamental rights, including freedom of movement, expression, association, and the right to resume his medical work.

From August 1998 until his most recent arrest in March 2003, Dr. Que reportedly was under constant government surveillance. His medical license, which was confiscated when he was first arrested in 1978, was never returned to him; thus he was precluded from resuming his medical work. (Dr. Que wanted to open a free clinic once again to provide medical care to the poor in the Ho Chin Minh City region.) The authorities also refused to issue him household registry documents and a residency permit. Household registry documents reportedly are required to legally reside in one’s home, to lawfully hold a job, attend a state school, receive public health care, travel, vote, and formally challenge administrative abuses, and residency permits are required for travel.

Individuals who attempted to visit Dr. Que reportedly were questioned. In spring 2000, a French journalist working for L'Express magazine, who attempted to interview Dr. Que at his home, was taken away by police as she approached Dr. Que’s house. She was interrogated by police for two days and was then escorted to the airport and forced to leave the country. We understand that exceptions were made for foreign dignitaries. For example, in December 2001, Dr. Que reportedly was visited by the First Secretary of the Embassy of Denmark, and, in January 2002, David S. Abramowitz, Democratic Chief Counsel of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on International Relations, met with Dr. Que.

Further examples of the Vietnamese government’s efforts to deliberately deprive Dr. Que of his rights to information and freedom of expression from August 1998 to March 2003 are its cancellation of Dr. Que’s Internet access, refusal to reconnect his telephone, and confiscation of his computer. (In December 2001, the authorities abruptly returned Dr. Que’s computer to his home. All of the software, however, as well as a number of hardware components, had reportedly been removed prior to its return, rendering the computer unusable.) In August 2002, at the request of Dr. Que's brother, the CHR sent Dr. Que, via DHL, a laptop computer so that he could more easily continue his research and writing. We were most pleased to learn that Dr. Que received the computer, but are dismayed that it was confiscated by security forces following his arrest in March 2003.

In January 2001, Dr. Que was denounced as a "subversive" by residents of his neighborhood at a session arranged by security officials which they had been ordered to attend.

In mid 2001, Dr. Que, who had lived in the same house since 1975, was abruptly told by the authorities that he was required to apply for certification to occupy his house. He promptly did so. Subsequently, he received a letter from the government stating that he did not meet the necessary conditions for certification and that his house was going to be administered by the State. It is the CHR’s understanding that Dr. Que’s house was owned by his mother. When she passed away in 1983, she left the house to her four children. Dr. Que’s three siblings then signed a letter stating that they all agreed that he could have sole ownership of the house. He submitted this letter to the relevant authorities. This arrangement clearly was acceptable to the authorities until 2001.

While Dr. Que was under house arrest, his mail was frequently intercepted by the government. The committee regularly sent Dr. Que letters and scientific literature, but only some were delivered. For example, in early December 2001, Dr. Que received a letter and several scientific journals that the CHR had sent him, but this was the first time in six months that he had received one of its packages. According to Dr. Que, no mail was delivered to him from July 2001 until the CHR’s package arrived in December. From December 2001 until his most recent arrest, Dr. Que received all packages sent to him by the CHR.

In mid March 2002, the CHR received a note from Dr. Que indicating that the Vietnamese government was tightening restrictions on him. The family living in the house next door to him had moved out, and security guards were occupying it 24 hours a day. Furthermore, acquaintances of Dr. Que were questioned by government authorities about their relationship with him and put under pressure to inform on him. It appears that these actions may have been taken, in part, as retribution because Dr. Que had just written an article critical of the Vietnamese government's decision to cede land to China in new bilateral border agreements.

On September 20, 2002, approximately 30 men from the Vietnamese state security forces forced their way into Dr. Que's house in Hanoi and searched his home for four hours. They informed him that he was being accused of violating national security and conspiring against the Vietnamese government, that his home would be searched, and that he must accompany them to state security headquarters for interrogation. While his home was being searched, he was questioned in particular about whether or not he had authored several articles that peacefully criticized Vietnamese government policies on, among other issues, recent border disputes with China and the government's treatment of the indigenous minority known as Montagnards. Dr. Que said that he had written the articles, that they had been distributed publicly, and that he thus had nothing to hide. He refused to go with the officers to security headquarters on the grounds that they had no court order stating that he must go and no explanation from a court about any wrongdoing that he had allegedly committed. Dr. Que reportedly was told by the officers that they would return shortly with the head of state security and the necessary court order to force him to submit to further interrogation at security headquarters.

On March 17, 2003, Dr. Que was arrested by security forces in front of his house in Ho Chi Minh City and taken into custody. Following his arrest, security forces searched Dr. Que’s home and confiscated his cellular telephone, laptop computer, and several essays he had written. Just four days earlier he had issued a communiqué criticizing government claims that freedom of information is respected in Vietnam. (In response to the introduction of a bill in the U.S. Congress entitled “Freedom of Information in Vietnam Act 2003,” the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry had stated that such a bill is unnecessary because Vietnam grants its citizens full freedom of information. Dr. Que issued his communiqué in response to the Foreign Ministry’s statement.)

Shortly thereafter, the Vietnamese government accused Dr. Que of being involved in activities aimed at overthrowing the Vietnamese government and stated its intention to bring him to trial under Article 80 of the Vietnamese Criminal Code for allegedly distributing information considered to be harmful to Vietnamese national security. (According to Amnesty International, Article 80 relates to charges of "spying" and provides for a prison sentence of between five years and life in prison, with an optional death penalty.)

For more than 16 months, Dr. Que was held incommunicado, without access even to his family or legal counsel. In late July 2004, just a few days before his trial, Dr. Que’s wife was summoned to the prison and asked to meet with her husband briefly to convince him to be “cooperative” during his trial. On July 29, 2004, he was brought to trial before the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Court and convicted for “abusing the democratic rights to jeopardize the interests of the State, and the legitimate rights and interests of social organizations and citizens.” Dr. Que was sentenced to 30 months in prison. His 16 months of detention were counted as time already served; thus his sentence was reduced to 14 months. (Prior to his trial, the CHR issued a public statement urging that his trial be fair and open.)

Dr. Que’s trial failed to meet international fair trial standards in numerous substantive ways. For example, the trial was closed to the public. The CHR’s request to observe the trial was ignored. Diplomats and foreign journalists were prevented from entering the courtroom; and only a few members of Dr. Que’s immediate family were permitted to attend. We understand as well that Dr. Que was not only denied the right to legal counsel during his trial, as well as throughout his 16-month pre-trial detention, but he was prevented by the court from defending himself during the proceedings. Moreover, according to his family, he was removed from the courtroom when—in response to an initial request by the court to make a brief statement—he told the judge that he was imprisoned for exercising his right to freedom of expression and was being denied a fair and open trial. Dr. Que reportedly was forced to hear the proceedings and sentencing through a one-way speaker from a room adjacent to the courtroom.

On September 22, 2004, the Vietnamese government transferred Dr. Que to the City of Unity labor camp in the jungles of Thanh Hoa province, some 1,200 miles from his home and family in Saigon. A few days before his transfer, Dr. Que’s wife was informed that he would soon be sent away and was instructed to bring him a three-month supply of medicines and some money. She was allowed to visit with Dr. Que at that time for about 15 minutes in the presence of two guards.

In late November 2004 Dr. Que’s wife was permitted to visit briefly with her husband again. She was not allowed to go to the City of Unity camp. Instead, she made the long trip from Saigon to Hanoi and was then driven by the government to a location midway between Hanoi and the City of Unity camp. She was able to visit briefly with her husband at this location, in the presence of security officials. It is our understanding that she was permitted to give him a package of medicines at that time.

On January 31, 2005, the Vietnamese officially announced that Dr. Que was among more than 8,000 prisoners released in a prisoner amnesty on the occasion of Tet, the Lunar New Year, six of whom—like him—had been sentenced for allegedly “violating national security.” When he arrived home on February 3, his health was very poor from being held under harsh conditions of confinement, including being held in a cell in freezing temperatures. Dr. Que suffers from hypertension, kidney problems, and a bleeding peptic ulcer, for which he reportedly did not receive adequate medical care in prison.

Dr. Que's case has received considerable international attention over the years. For example, the U.S. and Canadian governments have expressed concern about Dr. Que's treatment directly to Vietnamese officials. In 1993 the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention reviewed Dr. Que's case and declared his detention to be arbitrary and in contravention of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). In the months following Dr. Que’s most recent arrest, his case was again submitted to the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. On September 16, 2004, the Working Group found Dr. Que’s detention to be arbitrary and requested the Vietnamese government to take the necessary steps to conform to the requirements of Article 19 of the UDHR and the ICCPR.

In June 1994 Dr. Que was awarded the Raoul Wallenberg Human Rights Award. In December 1995, he was awarded the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Human Rights Award and, in 2002, he was awarded a Human Rights Watch Hellman/Hammett grant "in recognition of the courage with which [he] faced political persecution." In the last few years, Dr. Que has also been nominated twice by members of the U.S. Congress for the Nobel Peace Prize. In September 2004 Dr. Que was named as the 2004 recipient of the prestigious New York Academy of Sciences’ Heinz R. Pagels Human Rights of Scientists Award. The New York Academy’s requests to the Vietnamese authorities to allow Dr. Que to travel to New York to receive the award were unsuccessful. His brother, Dr. Quan Quoc Nguyen, who lives in the United States, attended the September 2004 ceremony in his place. In October 2004, Dr. Que was awarded a “Distinction in Civil Courage” by the Northcote Parkinson Fund.

During Dr. Que's lengthy imprisonments, the CHR has undertaken numerous efforts to obtain his release, including sending letters of appeal to the Vietnamese authorities and action alerts to the CHR's correspondents and members of the International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies, as well as issuing public statements and appeals. The CHR has also kept officials of the U.S. Department of State and members of Congress informed about the case and urged their intervention. CHR staff met with Vietnamese government officials at the United Nations as well to express concern about his poor treatment. On May 11 (Vietnam Human Rights Day) in 1998 and 1999, two of the CHR's members emeriti, Jerome Karle and Lawrence Klein respectively, attended a human rights dinner for more than 700 people that was organized by Dr. Que's brother and gave the keynote addresses. (Dr. Karle was the speaker at the May 11 event in 2000 and 2001 as well.) On Vietnam Human Rights Day in May 2003, CHR Chair Torsten Wiesel spoke about Dr. Que’s case on Capitol Hill and gave the keynote address at the human rights dinner.

Related Links

Nguyen Dan Que Released in Prisoner Amnesty (2/2/2005)

Public Letter from CHR Chair to Vietnamese Authorities (8/2/2004)

CHR Public Statement: Call for the Immediate Release or Fair Trial of Dr. Que  (7/27/2004)

Letter of Appeal from Nobel Laureates (11/22/2003)

Vietnam Human Rights Day Speech by CHR Chair (5/9/2003)

Letter from Nguyen Dan Que (7/22/2001)

Letter of Appreciation from Nguyen Dan Que (2/2/2000)