Summary and Current Status
Vietnamese medical doctor Pham Hong Son was released on August 30, 2006, as part of a large-scale general amnesty to mark Vietnam’s National Day on September 2. He had served four years and five months of a five-year prison sentence for peacefully expressing his opinion. In September 2006 the CHR received a letter from Dr. Son thanking the committee for its efforts to help gain his release from prison. Below is a brief excerpt:
[O]ther Vietnamese pro-democracy activists and I have undertaken to fight for a true democracy for Vietnam in spite of dangers. We know also we are not alone in that arduous struggle because the Humanity has seen an organization named Committee on Human Rights of the National Academies defending and struggling for human rights around the world including Vietnam.
I can not express how grateful I am to you, your Committee on Human Rights of the National Academies, I can only ask you to accept the most sincere thanks from my heart’s bottom and my own family.
Regretfully, however, Dr. Son is not a free man. Upon his release from prison, he was immediately placed under what amounts to house arrest and reportedly will remain so for up to three years. Unfortunately, because of the severe restrictions that have been placed on Dr. Son since his release from prison on August 30, we have only recently been able to obtain, from a source we deem reliable, the information below about the nature of these restrictions.
During the first few days of September 2006, approximately 10 policemen and security agents, wearing plain clothes, were stationed around Dr. Son’s house as close as five meters away. A number of additional agents were visible some distance away. In recent days the number of such guards has been somewhat reduced, and their presence is more discreet. Dr. Son has been informed by the authorities that he is permitted only to move about within his immediate neighborhood. The few times that he has gone outside of his house, at least two security agents have followed him. A request early this month by Dr. Son to visit his mother (who lives approximately 100 kilometers south of Hanoi) and pay respects to the gravesite of his father, who died just before his release, was denied, as was a request to go shopping with his family in an area just two kilometers from his house.
Officially, Dr. Son is permitted to receive visitors. Any visitors, however, are subjected to surveillance by the guards posted outside his house. Furthermore, it has been reported that security guards harassed several dissidents who tried to visit him and recently prevented a group of foreigners from entering his house. We would also add that the local telephone service company has disconnected Dr. Son’s telephone line reportedly in response to orders it received from the security police. To the best of our knowledge he does not have access to the Internet either. Earlier this month, when he tried to access the Internet via a local Internet café, security agents removed him from the café and escorted him home.
Dr. Son’s health declined significantly during his incarceration, in large part as a result of his harsh conditions of confinement and lack of access to adequate medical care. In mid 2004, while in prison, he developed an inguinal hernia. That he still suffers from this treatable condition two and a half years later attests to the fact that he did not receive the medical treatment it requires. Dr. Son also continues to cough up blood, a symptom that he has been experiencing for more than a year. Given his serious ill-health, the CHR is concerned that he has been told that a doctor can examine him at home, but he is not permitted to leave his home to go to a medical office or hospital to receive the specialized medical care that his conditions require.
Dr. Pham Hong Son, born in 1968, is a medical doctor and businessman. He graduated from Hanoi Medical University in 1992 and practiced medicine for several years. He subsequently earned a Masters degree in Business Administration from the French-Vietnamese Center for Management Training. Prior to his arrest, Dr. Son was a sales representative for Tradewin Asia, a pharmaceutical company in Hanoi. He is fluent in both French and English. Dr. Son is married to Mrs. Vu Thuy Ha and has two young children.
In 2001, Dr. Son began writing articles, a number of which advocated democracy and improved human rights in Vietnam, including The Promotion of Democracy: a Key Focus in a New World Order and Sovereignty and Human rights: The Search for Reconciliation. He also translated into Vietnamese articles that others had written. Some of the articles he wrote and some that he translated were circulated by hand; others were posted on the Internet. In January 2002, Dr. Son reportedly wrote an open letter to the secretary general of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Nong Duc Manh, that said Vietnam was ready for democracy. He appealed to Mr. Manh's stated support for "grass-roots democracy" in an apparent effort to promote broader debate over the nation's future. In March 2002, following a meeting of the Central Committee of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Dr. Pham wrote an article entitled Hopeful Signs for Democracy in Viet Nam, which he sent to senior party officials urging them to heed the just passed Central Committee resolutions regarding the need for increased democracy in Vietnamese society. He also translated into Vietnamese an article entitled What is Democracy?—that was posted on the website of the United States Embassy in Viet Nam—and sent it to senior Communist Party officials, as well as to his friends.
On March 25, 2002, Dr. Son's house was searched, reportedly by members of the special police unit P4-A25. His computer and many documents were confiscated. He was also summoned for questioning by the Ministry of Public Security. The following day Dr. Son reportedly returned to the police station to claim his personal belongings, but was prevented from doing so. He then wrote an open letter to the Vietnamese authorities protesting the search of his home and confiscation of his personal belongings and posted it on the Internet. Two days later, on March 27, Dr. Son was arrested at his home. According to his wife, Vu Thuy Ha, his family was not given an arrest order from the People’s Court or the People’s Investigative Court indicating the reasons for his detention in contravention of the Vietnamese Constitution.
Reliable reports indicate that Dr. Son was held in pre-trial detention for 15 months without any access to his family, in flagrant contravention of both international and human rights law. He was formally indicted on April 10, 2003. In the indictment, the government charged Dr. Son with spying for writing and disseminating his articles and for allegedly contacting “overseas reactionary elements.” The indictment further states that “[Pham Hong] Son willingly supported the view of the mentioned political opportunists and became a follower of the action plan to take advantage of freedom and democracy to advocate pluralism and a multiparty system in order to oppose the Government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.”
On June 18, 2003, Dr. Son was brought to trial at the People's Court in Hanoi. The proceedings failed to meet international fair trial standards in a number of important ways. Firstly, the trial was closed to the public, in contravention of Article 14 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, to which Vietnam is a State Party. It is our understanding that formal requests by diplomats from embassies of nine countries—including Australia, Canada, France, Italy, and the United States, and several other countries in the European Union—to attend the trial were not responded to, and those who tried to enter the court were turned away by security officials. Foreign journalists reportedly were also barred from attending the trial. According to reliable reports, the trial lasted only half a day, and Dr. Son did not receive adequate legal representation. According to his wife, she was the only witness called by the prosecution, and she was only allowed to answer "yes" or "no" in reply to two questions—the first one was to ask who she was, and the second to ask her to confirm the espionage charge. She has also stated that she was not permitted to remain in the courtroom while Dr. Son was present and had to learn the court’s decision on her husband’s case from those who were leaving the courtroom.
Dr. Son was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 13 years’ imprisonment to be followed by 3 years of house arrest under Article 80, Section 1, paragraphs (a), (b), and (c) of the Vietnamese Criminal Procedure Code. To our knowledge, no evidence was presented by the prosecution to support the government’s allegations that Dr. Son was engaged in spying on and sabotaging the Vietnamese government.
Dr. Son reportedly was given 15 days to appeal his conviction, which he did. On August 26, 2003, he appealed his case before the Hanoi Supreme Court. Once again, the hearing was closed both to international observers and Western journalists. According to Human Rights Watch, diplomats from more than eight countries gathered outside the courtroom during the hearing to demonstrate their concern about Dr. Son’s conviction. The Supreme Court ruled that Dr. Son’s prison sentence be reduced from 13 years to 5 years to be followed by 3 years’ house arrest. It is our understanding that no reason was given for the court’s decision.
In November 2004 Dr. Son, who was in ill-health, was transferred from a prison in Hanoi to the City of Unity Labor Camp in the jungles of Thanh Hoa province, where conditions were extremely harsh and access by family members was difficult. It is our understanding that this is a “hard labor regime” prison camp used for common criminals. Reliable sources indicated that Dr. Son was suffering from an inguinal hernia, for which he did not receive adequate medical care. It is our understanding that he had difficulty walking, was weak and shook, and was kept in solitary confinement for long periods of time. In early 2005 Dr. Son reportedly developed a tumor in his nose. His family requested that he be given a medical examination to determine whether an operation to remove the tumor was necessary, but we understand he was never given the examination. Dr. Son was considered to be a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International.
On August 30, 2006, Dr. Son was released from prison as part of a large-scale general amnesty to mark Vietnam’s National Day on September 2. He had served four years and five months of a five-year prison sentence. Upon his release, however, he was placed under what amounts to house arrest for three years. For the first year, Dr. Son reportedly was under surveillance 24 hours a day, did have any access to the Internet, and was prevented from having visitors. We understand that in recent months the restrictions on him have been lessened. He has been permitted to travel around Hanoi without hindrance, has been permitted to have some visitors, and has access to a telephone and the Internet.