Slices of Life Behind Bars: A Memoir By A Female Prisoner of Conscience - Dân Làm Báo

Slices of Life Behind Bars: A Memoir By A Female Prisoner of Conscience

Đào Trường Phúc (Danlambao) - "Slices of Life Behind Bars" - the title chosen by Tiếng Quê Hương Publishing Group for this book by Phạm Thanh Nghiên - could be considered "the first memoir of prison life ever written by a female prisoner of conscience under the communist regime in Vietnam". Would such an introduction be in conflict with the author's personality reflected in her modest self-descriptions throughout her book? We as the publishers had to put it that way though, due to a few things about the contents of this memoir that need to be elaborated:

First of all, the Vietnamese communist government has never admitted the existence of "prisoners of conscience" or "political prisoners". All those who voice their dissent against the regime's immoral, dishonest and brutal actions or policies are considered "convicts of criminal offenses", since they are unjustly tried as criminals (according to some arbitrary laws that penalize all opposing activities) and thrown to the same prisons with convicts who committed such crimes as murder, drug trafficking, etc.

Second of all, let's look at the case of Phạm Thanh Nghiên: she was arrested on September 18, 2008, while doing a "sit-in-protest" in her own house with her banner "Hoàng Sa and Trường Sa belong to Việt Nam. NO to traitor Phạm Văn Đồng’s memorandum selling short our islands on Sept. 14, 1958". A week before that, she had been "summoned" for daily "work sessions" by the Security Investigation Agency who continuously harassed her for her activities. Even before that, her house had been surrounded day and night by the security police force. Being unable to make a trip from Hải Phòng to Hà Nội to join her friends at the September 14 anti-China demonstration, she decided to post a "Proclamation" on the internet, then started her sit-in-protest. She was "temporarily detained for investigation" for eighteen months before being taken to court on January 29, 2010 and sentenced to four years in prison plus three years of house arrest. The court never mentioned her sit-in-protest, but seeked to convict her for what she wrote in a March, 2008 article. Entitled "Wrath of the Sea", that was a de-facto report on the plight of families of the eight fishermen who were shot to death by Chinese coast guards on January 8, 2005 while boat fishing within Vietnam's coastal waters. Since the Vietnamese communist party and government, under China's pressure, had been trying to conceal that tragic event, they ended up staging a trial with two coerced witnesses to convict Phạm Thanh Nghiên of "propaganda against the State", while she as a writer just wanted to unveil the truth of the massacre.

Third of all, although the above facts indicated that Phạm Thanh Nghiên was truly a typical prisoner of conscience, she had to serve her time in the same prisons with convicts of various criminal offenses, from Hải Phòng district's temporary detention center to the National Security Ministry's camp 5 of Thanh Hóa.

On a side note, let's go back to the concept of "prisoner of conscience".

It was on May 28, 1961 that the term "prisoner of conscience" was first seen in an article written by the founder of Amnesty International, Peter Benenson, when he launched the campaign "Appeal for Amnesty 1961". In that said article - "The Forgotten Prisoners", published in The Observer - a "prisoner of conscience" was defined as: "Any person who is physically restrained (by imprisonment or otherwise) from expressing (in any form of words or symbols) any opinion which he honestly holds and which does not advocate or condone personal violence".

Not only Phạm Thanh Nghiên's memoir brings to light various tricky tactics used by the communist authorities (via their security force and judicial system) to impose penal sentences upon non-violent dissidents, it also elucidates that any governmental statements claiming "no prisoners of conscience nor political prisoners in Vietnam" are nothing but deceiving propaganda and lip service; because in reality all prison wardens always receive the same order to strictly apply a "policy of isolation" upon a political prisoner in their prison camps, by threatening and ordering inmates to stay away from the "traitor" - as he or she would be labeled.

It can be deduced from the above fact that further dangerous situations might happen, when prison authorities use convicted inmates as surrogates to inflict mental or physical harm to the prisoners of conscience in revenge for their opposing activities. However, readers will find another interesting fact from Phạm Thanh Nghiên's memoir to counterbalance that reality – the "policy of isolation", be it applied using enticement or violence, does not always work to prevent criminally convicted prisoners from getting close to political prisoners in a form of mutual communion, as they all share the common fate of people stripped of freedom after being turned into victims of injustice under a prejudiced, corrupt, brutal and inhumane regime.

Her emotional encounters and personal experiences, interwoven with her direct observation of so many broken lives, have motivated Phạm Thanh Nghiên to put into words what she has been through, in a style that best reflected the honesty and sensitivity of a prisoner of conscience:

"People are more inclined to ‘say good things about themselves’ and would feel much easier to talk about their achievements than about their failures. A common tendency is to avoid or hide the mistakes one has committed, especially those only known to oneself and unknown to others. But, being true to oneself should be the primordial condition to become a fair and just person. That is, one must realize that the ultimate goal is not to become a hero in the eyes of others, but to learn how to confront moments of fear and weakness, and how to overcome dangers and challenges

"I have no intention of keeping to myself whatever personal ‘secrets’ I had during my time in prison, although I have all the possibility and right to do so. I will share with you, my friends, in a true-to-the-core manner, not only the incidents where I was triumphant, dignified and courageous, but also my moments of failure, cowardice and weakness, as a prisoner of conscience under this Communist regime. To put it simply, the truth must be told and respected. One day should you unfortunately become a prisoner of conscience like me, I hope my past experiences would be of help to you. And I am certain that you will triumph, a triumph so very perfect, because you are much better than I was, braver and cleverer than I ever could be".

"...The word ‘prison’ brings to mind the concepts of punishment and misery. Within the framework of this humble book, I have no ambition to cover every aspects of communist prisons to satisfy readers’ need. I only hope that these non-exhaustive accounts of what I have witnessed during my four years in prison might shed some light or lift up some veil over a corner of a communist prison. Obviously, prisoners’ accounts may vary, depending on personal experiences, different penitentiary centers, and historical contexts. Even so, there must be a common ground for all prisoners to agree on: Vietnamese communist prisons epitomise the most terrible atrocities and the most loathsome sufferings that some people can inflict on other human beings. Those prisons are built for tribulation, affliction, exhaustion, darkness and demise. They can be defined by barbarity against helplessness, heinousness against desperation, vengefulness against hopelessness, even against death. In brief, those prisons are the definition of hell on earth – a hell where people are still breathing, moving, laughing and crying".

If Phạm Thanh Nghiên's memoir offers a lot of information and sentiments that are quite different from what can be found in other "prison memoirs", the difference is not only attributable to the author's unique style, but because the author is, first and foremost, a prisoner of conscience, a woman who fights for human rights in a society where all humane values have been turned upside down, a writer who wants to promote patriotism while all leaders of her own country are more than ready to give away national sovereignty in exchange for their personal power and interests.

When Phạm Thanh Nghiên was thrown into that "hell on earth" to share the miserable fate of criminally convicted prisoners, it was the inner voice of a prisoner of conscience that helped her develop a communion with her inmates – the desperate people coming from the darkest corners of a disintegrated society. And that was how their stories were told in a memoir for us to read and ponder upon:

"My cellmates avoided me, not because they disliked me, but because they didn’t want any consequence from their association with me. Nevertheless, there were still relationships, even friendships cleverly forged under the wardens’ radar to avoid complications.

"...A few days earlier, the whole quarter of the Camp was in commotion when sister Chanh of Platoon 29 received a harsh warning from the warden for having sold to me a trunk to store my personal belongings. That resulted in sister Chanh being singled out for a ‘blame and shame’ showdown the previous morning, in the middle of the communal courtyard and in front of thousands of prisoners as well as all guards and wardens of this quarter. Even though sister Chanh was not sent to the doghouse, the disciplinary measure was for her to be transferred out of her platoon and stripped off an opportunity for a sentence reduction later in the year. The fear factor came down hard to cover the whole Camp quarter in a gloomy atmosphere. The prisoners whispered to one another to be wary and stay away from the ‘traitor girl’ if they wanted no trouble for themselves".

"...Mai was not the only one to be ‘invited for a coffee’. Many other cellmates of mine were called up to listen to the warden's warning against befriending me, or just being around me. Some had to take an oath to never again come anywhere near the ‘traitor’. After being ‘invited for a coffee’ like that, every inmate went out with a friendly reminder “no word about this to Nghiên”. But not many inmates’ mouths could keep a secret or a promise. If the ‘secret’ was not leaked immediately then it would go around the block first; and even if I wasn’t directly told, I would learn of it through the prison grapevine. When I first arrived in the camp, that isolation policy used to make me feel depressed and sad because of my susceptible nature. But with time I got used to it and couldn’t care less.

"The inmates who befriended me and overtly stood by me were among the hard-headed category, those with nothing left to lose – meaning they had no chance for a sentence reduction or were near the end of their jail term. The reason inmates lost their potential right to get a year or two of their terms reduced was because they violated prison rules. Prison rules violations came in many forms: wheeling-dealing, cash exchange, brawl, verbal abuse, under-quota labour, discourtesy to the cadres (e.g. forgetting to salute), mutual help between cellmates without authorization, etc...

"Those with AIDS, or those seriously sick and nearing the end of their lives, also liked to stick around with me. Time is something no one can manually touch. But it seemed the dying inmates had the ability to touch with their fingers and see with their eyes their remaining days shortening amidst their lengthy serving time. They could see and touch that pale ashen colour; that soreness on their cracked lips; they could feel their bared and crinkled skin-on-bone bodies, their gradually slower footsteps, and their daily agonizing sufferings. That was why, for those inmates with nothing left to lose, the potential favour of sentence reduction could no longer be used by prison wardens as a threat or bargaining chip..."


In 2010, after eighteen months of "temporary detention for interrogation" (including four months of solitary confinement), plus a seventy-day wait following the trial where she was sentenced to four years in prison and three years of house arrest, Phạm Thanh Nghiên was transferred to Camp 5 in Thanh Hóa to serve the rest of her jail time. It went without saying that her life as an inmate was literally severed from the outer world, and all kinds of information were hidden behind not one but two iron curtains – the small prison where she was locked in, and the larger prison which was her own country. She could only receive every now and then small bits of "news on the outside" from some "newcomers" to the camp. And she was shocked when an inmate inadvertently disclosed the information on the arrests of two of her fellow activists:

"One of the most dreadful things in my life was to hear about the arrest of someone I knew, a friend, a fellow activist. During my four years in prison, I reckoned dozens of them were arrested for joining our fight for Human Rights, Democracy and Religious Freedom. Most of them were people I knew very well or had a chance to meet in person. If you tallied the number of years those peaceful activists have been sentenced to, you’d easily come up with a staggering total of many hundred years (...) I couldn’t help feeling a pang of concern when I thought of the terrible time ahead for our movement out there. I could count on the fingers of one hand, only three or five of us left – those who haven’t been arrested (yet) or have been released from prison but still under house arrest.

"The arrests of doctor Phạm Hồng Sơn and lawyer Lê Quốc Quân following a series of previous arrests dragged my morale to the ground. Sister Hương, a prisoner from another cell said to me, "Think positive now, you hear me! Didn't you once tell me that there are many names of those arrested you have never heard of... That means more and more people are joining your movement. You ought to be happy instead of being depressed like this".

The encouraging words from that fellow inmate turned out to be true to the core. As a matter of fact, in the past ten years – even while Phạm Thanh Nghiên was imprisoned and up to this day – there has been a continuous increase and never a decrease in the number of people who enlisted themselves for the common cause of their fight for Freedom, Democracy and Human Rights in Vietnam. The unstoppable progress of informative technology – especially the extraordinary expansion of social media (Facebook) since 2011-2012 – has helped those fighters quite a lot in the effort to connect with one another and to share information on their movement with the public. Not only the spreading of information has reached the point where the communist government could hardly hamper, the lightning-fast input and output of accurate information has somewhat debilitated the regime's censorship system and even forced the party-and-state-controlled media system to struggle for survival.

The failure of their deep-rooted policy of deception and concealment, plus the accumulation of internal troubles (power struggles among party leaders, budget deficit...) and external troubles (China's pressure in South China sea, diplomatic crisis with Germany and E.U.) have been factors that accounted for the Vietnamese communist party's resumption of their violent crackdowns on dissidents. In the past few years, most recently from June to August, 2017, dozens of peaceful activists and former prisoners of conscience have been targeted in a series of beatings, harassments, arrests and trials resulting in harsh prison sentences. That situation led to alarming reports from international organizations, such as Human Rights Watch's 65-page report "No Country for Human Rights Activists: Assaults on Bloggers and Democracy Campaigners in Vietnam" and their press release "Vietnam: End Attacks on Activists and Bloggers", as well as Amnesty International's report "Detained for Defending Human Rights", that listed new violations and raised questions on the whereabouts of lawyer Nguyễn Văn Đài who was re-arrested and taken away to an unknown address since December 16, 2015.

As horrible as it is seen by the world, a crackdown by the communist regime on bare-handed dissidents – women included – does not come as quite a surprise to the freedom fighters who are well aware that violence is an unchangeable reaction of the people in power whenever they feel threatened by an opposing voice which challenges their authoritarian logic. Part of Phạm Thanh Nghiên's memoir was written in the purpose of getting her fellow activists mentally prepared for any worst scenario:

"I dedicate this story to you, my friends, who belong to a Reserve of Prisoners of Conscience under this Communist regime, so you can view some snapshots in the life of a prisoner. I always hope that, in a not too far future, no Vietnamese people will have to experience the atrocious and deprived condition of imprisonment as a price to pay for their aspiration for Freedom".

Since the internet has played a big role in gradually revealing the truth behind closed doors, it is no longer a secret to the world that long years of imprisonment should not be defined as the only price to pay for a person's aspiration for freedom in Vietnam, because prisoners of conscience must continue to face innumerable hardships even after their jail time. In October, 2009, when Human Rights Watch awarded the Hellman/Hemmett award to Phạm Thanh Nghiên, she was in a detention center awaiting her trial. Seven years later, although her four-year sentence has been fully served and her three-year probation has expired, she and her husband must still experience close supervision and permanent harassment, and one day they were both arrested and brutally beaten by the security police.

On March 30, 2017, Ireland-based Front Line Defenders ( announced the selection of five finalists – out of 142 nominations from 56 countries – for their annual award. The Front Line Defenders Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk was established in 2005 to "honour the work of human rights defenders who, through non-violent work, courageously make outstanding contributions to the promotion and protection of the human rights of others, often at great personal risk to themselves".

"Vietnamese blogger and former political prisoner Pham Thanh Nghien was one of five finalists selected for the 2017 award", Front Line Defenders said in a statement. "Also selected were Ukrainian rights lawyer Emil Kurbedinov, South African land and environment campaigner Nonhle Mbuthuma, imprisoned Kuwaiti minority activist Abdulhakim Al Fadhli, and Nicaraguan anti-canal crusader Francisca Ramírez Torres.

"These five defenders demonstrate the tenacity and will to persist in the face of severe, often life threatening risks", the statement said, citing executive director of Front Line Defenders Andrew Anderson as he announced the finalists in Dublin on March 30.

"Pham Thanh Nghien spent four years in prison for her work publicising violations against and defending the rights of relatives of fishermen killed by Chinese patrols. Following her release, she was kept under house arrest, during which time she spearheaded numerous human rights campaigns and co-founded the renowned Vietnamese Bloggers’ Network. Nghien has had her home raided, been blocked from attending medical appointments, had a padlock placed on her door from the outside, and been refused a marriage certificate. Nghien has also survived numerous physical assaults aimed at stopping her powerful, peaceful work uncovering and publicising human rights violations in Vietnam.

"...Human rights defenders tell us that international visibility is vital to their work, particularly as governments and corporations work to defame, slander, and delegitimize their peaceful struggle for rights. Their struggle has not gone unnoticed and we in Ireland support their fight for rights", concluded the statement. "The 2017 finalists and their families have faced attacks, defamation campaigns, legal harassment, death threats, prison sentences, and intimidation. Front Line Defenders works to promote the visibility and protection of activists who are critical to rights movements in their countries and communities".

Just a few months ago, on May 22, 2017, on the series of YouTube videos uploaded by Front Line Defenders to introduce their finalists, some activists expressed their appreciation of Phạm Thanh Nghiên's contributions to the movement for freedom and democracy in Vietnam, and Phạm Thanh Nghiên herself shared some viewpoints on what has been going on in her own country (*):

"...Perhaps it is hard to imagine and hard to spell out the risks and dangers that dissidents who promote human rights like me are facing. Considering all the risks, I think not only me but all Vietnamese who speak out on criticizing the wrongful policies of the government, especially who strongly voice their concern about human rights and democracy issues, they all are the target for suppression by the government, or even imprisonment. I have been imprisoned for four years with a three-year house arrest. When I was under house arrest, I was not allowed to step out of my residence area; furthermore, I was not allowed to step out of my door, not allowed to go see a doctor...

"About a year ago, on May 11, 2016, there was a demonstration against the Formosa company and for environmental protection. On the way to the demonstration, we were arrested. Our group included me, my husband, and a few other activists. I was wrestled to the ground by a plainclothed policeman, and he stepped on my face with his shoes. We were held against our will for fourteen hours. I was beaten three separate times during this arrest. To me, this harassment has a lasting effect on my phisical and mental health. In the four years after my release from prison, I have to constantly take medication, and a few times I have to be taken to the hospital under constant surveillance by the police.

"We take for granted that being beaten, arrested, harassed, imprisoned, are the norms that we have to face in our struggle for freedom and to take back our human rights. In other countries, these activists often have a network to support each other, but it is different in Vietnam. We have to face many dangers. It is very difficult to meet with each other; so forming a network to support each other is out of the question. When any of us speak out about an injustice, we could immediately face jail time. The government does not hesitate to accuse us of "plotting to overthrow the state", "crime against the state", or "taking advantage of democracy or freedom against the state", etc..."

Many people watching the video might ask themselves: Under such a merciless regime, under such perilous circumstances, what motivates those freedom fighters to maintain their dedication and determination so they can keep joining hands with one another on their challenging journey? Here is the answer from Phạm Thanh Nghiên:

"We cannot live to wake up each morning in fear. There is no other choice for us but to overcome this. The thirst for freedom, for human dignity, is the force that drives us forward".

And that is why, as readers of Phạm Thanh Nghiên's memoir, we should not limit ourselves to the intent of picking up here and there some data and facts on the "slices of life behind bars" under a communist regime. Instead, we can expect to gather from this book more than just a few factors to help us watch for upcoming events that will inevitably spring from a persistent and unyielding fight to restore basic human rights for ninety million people, to reclaim national sovereignty for their country, and to replant humanity in the pieces of land devastated by an inhuman doctrine.


Slices of Life Behind Bars: A Memoir By A Female Prisoner of Conscience
Author: Phạm Thanh Nghiên
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Product details
- Paperback: 512 pages
- Publisher: Tu Sach Tieng Que Huong (October 3, 2017)
- Language: Vietnamese - English
- ISBN-10: 1976548985
- ISBN-13: 978-1976548987
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.2 x 8.5 inches.

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