WASHINGTON — Evangelical pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh will always have the scar on top of his head to remind him of the years that he was imprisoned, beaten and tortured for daring to advocate on behalf of indigenous people groups being denied human rights by Vietnam's communist government.
Having been arrested over 200 times for his human rights advocacy over a span of three decades, it wasn't until Chinh was jailed in 2011 and sentenced to 11 years' imprisonment for "undermining national solidarity" by violating a preaching ban in the Central Highlands that his persecution started gaining international attention.
Thanks to pressure from the international community and the United States government, the founder of the Vietnamese People's Evangelical Fellowship was released last July 28 with six years still left to serve on the condition that he and his family leave the country.
As Chinh's family now lives a new life in the U.S. free from government persecution, the pastor opened up on Wednesday morning about his horrifying experiences and the fate currently facing as many as 170 other prisoners of conscience in the socialist republic.
Speaking at a summit commemorating the 20th anniversary of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Chinh explained that he is thankful that those at USCIRF and the U.S. State Department were successful in their advocacy on his behalf. However, the pro-democracy activist stressed there are still other advocates languishing in the position he was once in.
"The Vietnamese government has a policy to persecute a few to intimidate many," Chinh said through his translator Thang Dinh Nguyen. "Under international pressure, the Vietnamese government may release one prisoner of conscience now but then they will detain many other dissidents afterwards."
Just in the past two weeks alone, Chinh said, Vietnamese authorities have sentenced nine human rights defenders to a total of 83 years in prison, following a total of 30 years under house arrest.
"In Vietnam's prisons, prisoners of conscience fare worse than common criminals," he warned. "They are subjected to several measures such as solitary confinement, impurity in water, lack of food, no access to medical care, denied access to their families and are prohibited from other activities with other inmates."
"Since 2000, 127 prisoners of conscience have died from torture or contamination of food or water," he added. "Most victims [are] Christians from the southern islands, Hmong Christians from the northwestern region and Buddhists from Southwestern region in Vietnam."
Fortunately for Chinh, he is not one of the many Christians who have died as a result of mistreatment inside Vietnamese prisons. However, that's not to say that he was spared abuse during his years in detention.
For Chinh, he knows too well what it is like to be brutally beaten by government officials and knows what it is like to spend about a month locked in solitary confinement where his health rapidly deteriorated.
"The wardens did a lot of beating to the point that many of the prisoners of conscience became ill, injured, handicapped and some of them died," he told The Christian Post after the summit, adding that there are many different forms of beatings the guards would hand out.
"They used fists and they also used batons," he recalled through the translator. "They beat me on the head, my chest, my leg and arms. I still have injury, a scar on my head."
Chinh told CP that prison officials would also use other prisoners as their "tools" to further punish prisoners of conscience.
"The prison administration uses the common criminals to beat up and persecute the prisoners of conscience and religious criminals," he said. "They are the tools of the prison guards. If we got beaten to death, then the prison guards will say, 'This is just an issue among the prisoners. It is not us.'"
As has been previously reported, the authorities subjected Chinh to various types of torment, including falsely telling him that his wife, Tran Thi Hong, had been unfaithful to him while he was in prison.
Chinh also faced retaliation by being locked away in a tight isolated space after he told officials from the U.S. consulate last May about the horrifying experiences he faced in prison, which included the fact that officials put shards of glass in his food.
In 2016, government officials also tortured his wife after she provided information to the international community about the government's human rights violations against her husband.
"Given all this, Pastor Chinh was released early. Why? I think we at USCIRF believe that advocacy of many people made a big difference," USCIRF Commissioner Jackie Wolcott said during the event. "That would include Reps. [Alan] Lowenthal, [Ed] Royce and [Bill] Posey and those in the State Department, and several human rights organizations and NGOs and former Ambassador-at-Large [for International Religious Freedom] David Saperstein who personally advocated for him."
Even before his sentencing in 2011, Chinh said that he had been placed under house arrest since 1990 and was considered for 20 years to be "persona non grata" as he didn't have any citizenship ID.
According to Chinh, he was sentenced to prison in 2011 not only because of his preaching but because he was trying to investigate the death of Christians and other religious dissidents who he believed had been "tortured to death."
"The United States must increase diplomatic pressure and use [country of particular concern] designations and sanctions to pressure Hanoi to release all prisoners of conscience," Chinh declared during the summit.
On Thursday, a coalition of 12 human rights groups sent a letter to Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc asking him to release all prisoners of conscience.
Vietnam ranks as the 18th worst country in the world when it comes to the persecution of Christians, according to Open Doors USA's 2018 World Watch List.
"USCIRF has long called for Vietnam to be designated a country of particular concern and we still do," Wolcott said.
Another alarming development in Vietnam is the emergence of "Red Flag" associations that have oppressed Catholics and other religious communities in the nation.
"What is very concerning is the rise of this Red Flag group, which is an extralegal gang used by the government to harass religious people so that they know that it wasn't the police and they can say, 'It wasn't us. Don't blame us,'" USCIRF Commissioner Thomas Reese said. "[The government] is the one who is supporting these people and encouraging them and doing nothing to stop them."
Chinh told CP that "the police created those groups to suppress the demonstrators and those who fight for freedom of religion and other freedoms."