Vietnamese Pastor Freed from Mental Hospital

Monday, September 26, 2005

The Rev. Than Van Truong had been ruled “delusional” for believing in God.

Special to Compass Direct

HO CHI MINH CITY, September 19 (Compass) -- Committed to a Vietnamese mental hospital for nearly a year after being diagnosed as “delusional” for believing in God, the Rev. Than Van Truong was released to his family on Saturday, September 17.

Prosecuting authorities had committed Rev. Truong to a high security section of the Bien Hoa Mental Hospital in Dong Nai Province on September 30, 2004.

His wife, Nguyen Thi Kim, received a call from him on Friday, September 16, but by the time she arrived officials said the hospital had closed for the day. She returned the next morning, and after various procedural requirements Rev. Truong arrived home in Ho Chi Minh City at 4:50 p.m.

A former officer in the Vietnamese People’s Army, Truong became a Christian and eventually a worker for the Baptist General Conference house church organization in Vietnam. His troubles began several years ago, when he sent Bibles to Vietnam’s top officials with the encouragement to consult them for truth and wisdom. He was arrested in May 2003 and imprisoned without charges for nine months.

After that he was kept under close surveillance until his second arrest in June 2004. This time, again unable to find any criminal charges, prosecutors committed him to the mental hospital. At first heavily injected with unknown drugs, he became ill and very lethargic. Later, when he was given oral medications, he managed to keep from ingesting them and soon improved.

Only a few people knew of his situation until visitors to Mennonite prisoner Le Thi Hong Lien discovered him after Pastor Truong had given her a Bible. Lien, who suffered a mental breakdown after severe abuse in prison, had been transferred to the Bien Hoa hospital in late February 2005 following intensive international advocacy. She remained there until being granted amnesty in April. (See Compass Direct, “Vietnam Will Free Le Thi Hong Lien,” April 29.)

Following Rev. Truong’s discovery by some of Lien’s visitors, regular updates about his situation, including details about his treatment, made it possible to launch a wide advocacy campaign by Western governments and human rights advocacy groups.

This campaign frustrated and angered Vietnamese authorities. The Dong Nai Province prosecuting authorities and Bien Hoa hospital officials began to blame each other, and neither would take responsibility. For months Rev. Truong was stuck in the middle -- prosecutors could find no criminal charges to lay against him, and a doctor at the hospital told his wife that he showed no signs of any mental disorder.

But a hospital committee assigned the task of re-evaluating Pastor Truong adhered to Soviet-era, orthodox Marxism when it continued to find him “delusional” because he insisted on his belief in God.

Rev. Truong wrote exceptionally lucid reports about his own mistreatment and deplorable conditions in the mental hospital. Comparable with some of Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn’s accounts of life in the Soviet Gulag, Rev. Truong’s reports hold the Vietnamese system up to ridicule and engender a deep sympathy for those who endure its excesses.

In recent weeks no drugs had been administered to him, and his health further improved. He resumed his evangelistic activity and even baptized some fellow patients. Some of them also were mentally sound but had committed violent crimes. They used personal connections to get placed into the mental hospital rather than be executed or imprisoned.

His hospital discharge paper, obtained by Compass, maintains the diagnosis that Rev. Truong was suffering “confusion and delusion,” and his pharmaceutical order prescribes that he “regularly take medication” -- which he has no intention of doing. Rev. Truong is consulting with a Christian attorney in Vietnam to determine whether he should sue authorities for damages. Such a lawsuit would have little chance in Vietnam’s legal system, still directed by the Communist Party, though some sympathizers hope such a case could make a point.

The release of Rev. Truong brings to eight the number of evangelical prisoners or mental hospital inmates who have been released this year. Others remain incarcerated. Vietnam steadfastly maintains it has never imprisoned anyone for religious reasons.

Copyright 2005 Compass Direct