Imprisoned Vietnamese Christian Hospitalized for 'Mental Disease'

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Female member of ‘Mennonite Six’ endures harsh treatment in police custody.

Special to Compass Direct

HO CHI MINH CITY, November 18 (Compass) -- Le Thi Hong Lien, the sole woman among six Mennonite church workers sentenced to prison in Vietnam last Friday, is hospitalized with a “mental disease,” according to prison officials.

Just 21 years old, Miss Lien has been a zealous church worker for some time, specializing in teaching the Bible to small children. She was arrested on June 30, nearly three months after the March 2 incident involving the five men arrested earlier and tried with her.

Lien and the others were convicted of “resisting persons doing official duty,” a civil crime. Those close to the situation say the charges and trial were an artifice to take Rev. Nguyen Hong Quang, outspoken leader of the Vietnam Mennonite Church, out of circulation. Quang has actively campaigned against religious freedom and human rights abuses.

Contrary to Vietnamese law, Lien was not allowed family visits during the first two months of her incarceration. Her parents were told that the reason was that she was “too stubborn” and would not admit to her “crime.”

During the November 12 trial, it became known that she had been on a nine-day hunger strike prior to the trial. She appeared very weak and unwell. Her lawyer revealed he had met with her prior to the trial in the prison infirmary.

Quang, on trial as the “ringleader” of the group, was so alarmed at Lien’s appearance that he asked the court to take her immediately for a medical examination, saying that she showed “clear signs of severe weakness and mental stress.” The judge refused but did agree to allow her to remain sitting even at times when court convention required prisoners to stand.

Lien’s concerned parents went to visit her on Monday following the Friday trial, according to an approved schedule for visitors. However, they were told that she was in the prison infirmary and that they should come back the next day.

When they returned the following day, November 16, they were made to wait for several hours before being admitted to the prison. Once inside they were told that they could not see their daughter because she had been removed to an outside hospital. Authorities refused to tell them where she was but did tell them their daughter “had a mental disease.”

There had been earlier suspicions that she had been mistreated. Now given her illness in court, the harsh sentence and her hospitalization, her parents have written and signed a report in which they affirm, “During her time in prison, our daughter was seriously abused and beaten -- to the point where it has had serious negative effects on her health and mental condition.”

Lien’s parents had not raised the issue earlier because they were hoping she might be let off with time already served.

Family members have confirmed that at least two of the four men arrested in March were severely beaten by police. One of them, evangelist Pham Ngoc Thach, was believed to have sustained life-threatening injuries.

The mother of another prisoner also discovered on November 16 that her son, Mennonite church elder Nguyen Hieu Nghia, was in the prison infirmary with a high fever. Of the six prisoners, Nghia is considered the most vulnerable to pressure and abuse.

A report from the Vietnam News Agency dated November 13 stated, “The trial panel asserted that the crime committed by Quang and his associates was serious, causing chaos and social disorder, and undermining the rule of law.”

The People’s Daily of the same date said, “The actions of Quang and his accomplices caused a negative impact on an orderly and safe society.”

A Compass source familiar with the case remarked, “‘Rule of law’ and ‘safe society’ are the last words that come to mind when observing how Vietnam’s authorities are mistreating innocent church workers, including a young woman.”