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Vietnamese political prisoner Nguyen Thuy Hanh diagnosed with cancer

Her husband says squalid prison conditions caused her health to worsen.

Updated Jan. 25, 2024, 10:45 p.m. ET.

A Vietnamese political prisoner who raised money for families of people jailed for their political or religious views has been diagnosed with advanced stage cancer, according to her husband.

Nguyen Thuy Hanh, an outspoken activist who is being held at a mental hospital in the capital Hanoi, was diagnosed with stage 2 cervical cancer last week, her husband Huynh Ngoc Chenh said in a post to his Facebook account on Thursday.

Hanh had been suffering from poor health, but initially chose not to discuss it publicly because she did not want to draw attention away from other political prisoners, Chenh said. However, he chose to disclose her illness once she was diagnosed with cancer, he said. 

Since her diagnosis, authorities have taken Hanh to an area cancer institute, but she has been unable to receive treatment due to overcrowding.

Hanh, who in 2016 ran for a seat in Vietnam’s National Assembly, was arrested in April 2021 on charges of “anti-state propaganda,” for allegedly disseminating materials against the state.

After a year of incarceration in a Hanoi prison, she was forced into treatment for depression at the Central Mental Institute in Hanoi.

Claims of mistreatment

In his Facebook post, Chenh said his wife had been mistreated and deprived of adequate food and water during her detention.

For the entire year at the prison, Hanh was not allowed visits with family members or her lawyers, he said, and she was not allowed to receive care packages.

As the COVID-19 pandemic was raging, Chenh claimed that he had to pay cutthroat prices for food sold at the prison for his wife, and said the quality was hardly better than what prisoners were provided for free.

Authorities limited Hanh to five bottles of water and five boxes of milk from the prison canteen per month, Chenh said, and forced her to drink dirty water that prisoners had used for showering.

Chenh said that the living conditions in the detention center had contributed to her deteriorating health.

Extremely concerning

Josef Benedict, a campaigner for international NGO CIVICUS who has described the charges against Hanh as baseless, said the latest reports of her health condition are “worrying.”

“We urge the authorities to release her so that she can receive full and immediate access to proper medical care,” he told RFA Vietnamese.

Benedict said inhumane prison conditions with limited access to food and water are a violation of the U.N. Convention Against Torture, which Vietnam has ratified.

 “The authorities must also immediately and unconditionally drop the charges against her and take steps to ensure that minimum standards of health, food, potable water, accommodation and hygiene are met in prisons in Vietnam," he said.

Health exemption

Hanh’s illness may technically exempt her from serving her sentence according to Vietnamese law.

Article 62 of the country’s criminal code stipulates that prisoners who have contracted terminal illnesses are exempt from serving prison sentences, while Article 67 says that those who contract severe illnesses “are exempt from serving prison sentences until recovery.”

The terms “terminal illness” and “severe illness” are not clearly defined, however.

“Nguyen Thuy Hanh shouldn't be sentenced to prison in the first place, and now that she's been diagnosed with cervical cancer, continuing to hold her could amount to a de facto death sentence because of the abysmally poor health care afforded to prisoners in Vietnam's prisons,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

“The government should release her immediately, or at a minimum, let her out of prison on humanitarian grounds to receive medical treatment that could save her life.”

RFA contacted the Central Mental Institute Thursday by phone to inquire about Hanh’s case, but the person who answered the phone said that they would only speak with reporters in person.

Translated by An Nguyen. Edited by Eugene Whong. 

Updated to add comment from Human Rights Watch.


This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By RFA Vietnamese.


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