Vietnam: Christian released after 16 torturous years in prison; future uncertain amid failing health

Y Ngun Knul (L) is shown with his wife and children after his release from prison in an undated photo. | Radio Free Asia

A Vietnamese Christian jailed for almost 16 years for demanding land rights and religious freedom has been released. Yet his future remains uncertain as he battles health issues stemming from his time in prison.

According to Radio Free Asia, Y Ngun Knul was released from prison last week after spending nearly two decades in Nam Ha and Thanh Chuong prisons in Nghe An province.

He was first arrested and imprisoned on April 20, 2004, for launching protests calling for a Protestant church shut down by authorities to be reopened and for the members of his community to be allowed to live according to their traditions. Knul was initially issued an 18-year sentence which was later reduced. 

“As those rights were being taken away, people were becoming upset, and so I called on everyone to take part in the protests. As a result, I was arrested and sentenced to 18 years in prison,” Knul said, speaking to RFA’s Vietnamese Service.

The Christian was visited by his family only four times during his time behind bars, notes RFA, and he and his family have suffered in the past decade. Knul's family lost their house and land, and he now struggles with poor health due to years of incarceration.

“I have kidney failure and high blood pressure and had a gastrointestinal hemorrhage,” he told RFA. “Now I can eat only a bowl of rice per day because I have stomach problems that make it hard for me to breathe.”

“My foot is swelling, too, making it hard for me to move ... I would like to go to a hospital for treatment, but I have no money now.”

Nguyen Van Hai, a U.S.-based blogger held for a time with Knul at the Thanh Chuong prison, told RFA that prisoners from Vietnam’s Central Highlands see their families only rarely and that many who suffer ill health in prison live for only a few weeks after their release.

Nguyen told the outlet that Knul was beaten by guards, who kicked him in the stomach, and his body bore many scars.

Following his release, Knul was sent to Saigon for a medical check with the support of the Vietnamese human rights organization Defend the Defenders.

Knul’s release was applauded by rights groups, including Gina Goh, International Christian Concern’s Regional Manager for Southeast Asia.

“Unfortunately, Knul is just one of the many prisoners of conscience in Vietnam imprisoned for their religion, political views, or ethnicity,” she said. “While we celebrate Knul’s release after many agonizing years, we know that dozens of Christians are still incarcerated and should be released unconditionally by the Vietnamese authorities.”

Open Doors' World Watch List ranks the southeast Asian country as the 21st most dangerous nation for Christians. 

According to Open Doors, the country’s Communist government monitors Christians' activities and exerts a high level of pressure on them. In recent years, Vietnam has sentenced and jailed a number of Catholic activists, bloggers and Protestant pastors.

“The government has some level of tolerance for Christian groups, particularly Catholics, but if any believers are deemed to be politically active, they can be imprisoned. In places where religion and ethnic identity are closely tied, Christians who convert from traditional religions are often the victims of pressure and violence from their families and communities,” notes Open Doors.

The group estimates that approximately 80 percent of the country’s Christians belong to the country’s ethnic minorities, like the Hmong, and face social exclusion, discrimination, and attacks.

Since the reelection of Vietnam’s leader, Nguyen Phu Trong, in 2016, the party has also intensified a crackdown on political dissidents and tightened regulations on online communication. 

In November, Vietnam jailed three people for anti-government posts on Facebook deemed to defame the ruling Communist Party and the government.

In August, Pastor Le Dinh Luong, who is also an environment and democracy activist, was sentenced to 20 years in prison on trumped-up charges of attempting to “overthrow the government." The charges were later dropped.

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