January 7, 2013
By Shawn W. Crispin / CPJ Southeast Asia Representative
Vietnam’s crackdown on independent bloggers hit a new low in recent days with reports of sexual violence perpetrated by state officials against a prominent online reporter.
In a disturbing first person account posted Friday to the Danlambao collective blog, Nguyen Hoang Vi detailed how police officials beat and stripped her and ordered state nurses to conduct a vaginal cavity search while she was in custody on December 28 in Ho Chi Minh City’s Nguyen Cu Trinh Ward.
According to her defiant recollection of the assault, police officers said they suspected she had hidden "illegal exhibits" on her body and videotaped other officers as they violently removed her clothes. State nurses, after initially refusing, forcibly conducted the search. Vi writes in her blog entry:
"They asked me to be obedient and cooperate but I refused. They coercively carried me and put me on a table, they restrained my arms and my legs then proceeded to strip me naked. I resisted with all the force that I have left to fight back; a few times I kicked some of them to the wall. I scratched their hands, pulled their hair, but the strength of one was no match for the four of them combined. In the end they stripped me naked. They placed their hands in my vagina. I felt hurt both physically and mentally."
Vi was initially detained in front of the courthouse that was scheduled that day to hear the appeals of imprisoned bloggers Nguyen Van Hai, Ta Phong Tan, and Phanh Thanh Hai. The three bloggers, charged in part for the joint founding of the unsanctioned Free Journalists Club of Vietnam, were sentenced to harsh prison terms in September for conducting propaganda against the state.
Phanh Thanh Hai, who blogs under the penname "Anh Ba Saigon," had his sentence reduced from four to three years; Hai’s and Tan’s sentences were upheld at 12 and 10 years, respectively. CPJ is working to confirm whether other independent bloggers were harassed or detained while trying to cover the appeals hearing. There are currently 14 journalists and bloggers behind bars in Vietnam, according to CPJ research.
Vi, a frequent contributor to Danlambao, was likely targeted due to her previous blog posts on the sensitive cases. In September, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung issued an executive order barring state employees from accessing Danlambao and two other blogs for, among other accusations, "reducing the people’s trust in state leadership."
According to a report by Union of Catholic Asian News, Vi met with the family members of Dang Thi Kim Lieng the day she set herself on fire to protest her daughter Tan’s detention and then-pending trial. Vi was later threatened and prevented from attending Lieng’s funeral by plainclothes agents, according to the report.
In Vietnam’s authoritarian context, police officials are seldom if ever punished for abusing their power. Vi’s account raises questions about the potential culpability of senior police official Le Minh Hai, who she notes in her entry is in charge of Ho Chi Minh City’s security department. She also raises questions about whether other detained female dissident bloggers have been subjected to similar sexual abuse in the past.
Like many harassed and oppressed bloggers in Vietnam, Vi signed off her powerful posting on a defiant yet hopeful note, quoting what she said to a security agent involved in her assault: "In a way, I am glad that you have done those acts; because for any social change, it would also come with losses and sacrifices. What you have done today shows me the signs of real changes that will come and they will come very soon."