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A Vietnamese ethnic minority Montagnard jailed for almost 16 years for demanding land rights and religious freedom has completed his prison term and returned home in failing health, the Central Highlands resident said, speaking to RFA on Thursday.

Y Ngun Knul was sentenced in in 2004 in Vietnam’s Dak Lak province to an 18-year term, later reduced, 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.

“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.

Held at Nam Ha and Thanh Chuong prisons in faraway Nghe An province, Knul was visited by his family only four times during his time behind bars, he said.

His family meanwhile lost their house and land. And now, suffering from poor health because of his time in prison, he is unsure about his future, he said.

“I have kidney failure and high blood pressure and had a gastrointestinal hemorrhage,” he said, adding, “Now I can eat only 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,” he said.

Many die after release

Also speaking to RFA, Nguyen Van Hai—a U.S.-based blogger held for a time with Knul at the Thanh Chuong prison—said 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.

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

Writing on her Facebook page on Feb. 28, Nguyen Thi Kim Thanh—wife of jailed journalist Truong Minh Duc, also held at Thanh Chuong—appealed for financial support for Knul and his wife and children, saying the family is now homeless and has been abused by local authorities.

Hundreds of Montagnards have fled their country in recent years and crossed the border into Cambodia, citing oppression by the Vietnamese government, religious persecution of the mainly Christian minority, and expropriation of their land.

Many have since been forced home, ending their hopes for resettlement and a better life.

Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Huynh Le. Written in English by Richard Finney.