Cablegate: Ambassador Visits Vietnam's Leading Political Prisoner

DE RUEHHI #0286/01 0711029
P 111029Z MAR 08





E.O. 12958: N/A


REF: 07 HCMC 0294

1. (SBU) Summary: On March 10, the Ambassador met with jailed
political activist and Catholic priest Nguyen Van Ly ("Father Ly")
at Ba Sao Prison south of Hanoi. The almost 75-minute meeting with
Ly took place in the presence of the prison warden and his deputies,
who were cordial and cooperative. Father Ly appeared in good health
and spirits and spoke strongly and with conviction. He told the
Ambassador he was in prison because he was an activist, stating in
English that he was a "prisoner of conscience." He argued at length
that Vietnamese law was not in compliance with international human
rights instruments to which Vietnam had acceded and the Government
of Vietnam did not understand nor respect religious freedom. Ly
said he did not have access to a Bible; the Ambassador subsequently
raised this issue with the warden, who responded that one would be
provided. Ly thanked the USG for its efforts on his case, noting in
particular ConGen HCMC's efforts on behalf of his family. Father Ly
said it was "up to God" when he would be released, as he would never
give up his principles and was prepared to stay in prison the rest
of his life. End Summary.

2. (SBU) Political activist and Catholic priest Nguyen Van Ly
("Father Ly") is serving an eight year prison sentence at Ba Sao
prison, in the hills of Ha Nam Province, approximately 1.5 hours
south of Hanoi. Ly was convicted by the Thua Thien-Hue People's
Court on March 30, 2007 of "spreading propaganda against the State,"
in violation of Article 88 of the GVN criminal code (Reftel).
According to Prison Commander (Warden) Duong Duc Thang, there are
approximately 2,000 prisoners at Ba Sao. Ba Sao is one of two major
prisons in Vietnam known to house political prisoners, who
constitute a small fraction of the prison's total population.

3. (SBU) Before Ly was escorted into the prison conference room to
meet the Ambassador, prison warden Duong Duc Thang, who has worked
at Ba Sao prison for the last 30 years, discussed Ly's case with the
Ambassador. He noted that Ly was spending his third stint at Ba Sao
prison and that in Vietnam "we say three strikes and you're out."
He said Ly had been last amnestied in 2005, and the prison officials
hoped they would not see him again. However, Ly continued to
"violate the law," leading to his re-arrest and re-imprisonment in
March 2007. Thang told the Ambassador he hoped he would tell
prisoner Ly to comply with Vietnamese law so he could enjoy the
policy of Vietnamese clemency in the shortest period of time. Thang
told the Ambassador he could speak with Ly for 30-40 minutes (Note:
the conversation actually turned out to last closer to 75 minutes.
End Note.) The Ambassador underscored to the warden USG interest in
the rule of law in Vietnam and particular USG concern for Ly's case,
noting that we had called for Ly's release and would continue to do


4. (SBU) Father Ly appeared both in good health and spirits, and
spoke strongly and passionately. At different times, he both
laughed and argued vociferously with prison officials, challenging
the warden and even the Ambassador's interpreter, whom he criticized
for not always interpreting his words accurately. Ly remains feisty
and committed to his beliefs and convictions. He showed neither
regret nor repentance. Ly did not know in advance he would be
meeting with the Ambassador; he was only told that he would "have

5. (SBU) According to Ly, this is his fourth time in prison, and he
has been incarcerated by the Vietnamese State for a total of over
ten years. Ly is allowed to read two local newspapers, Phap Luat
(Law) and Nhan Dan (Party Daily), provided to him by his family
members. He has not been allowed access to a Bible that his family
sent to him. Prison officials retain it, though they said he may be
able to access it at a later date.


6. (SBU) Upon meeting the Ambassador, Ly noted that, though he spoke
English, he was asked by the prison officials to speak only in
Vietnamese. He then went on angrily for 20 minutes about being
forced to wear a green and white striped prison uniform for the
meeting. He said the prison officials had pointedly done this to
make him "look and feel like a criminal." He said that normally he
would not agree to these conditions, but that he was a "flexible
person." His one condition was that nobody be allowed to take a
photograph of him without his permission, as photos would be used by
the State to depict him as a criminal. Ly then told the Ambassador
in English, with the warden quickly admonishing him to use only
Vietnamese, "I am a prisoner here, but I am not a criminal;" and
later, "I am a prisoner of conscience."

HANOI 00000286 002 OF 004

7. (SBU) Ly said that, despite his oppression, he maintained "good
will" and "great relations with humanity." He told the Ambassador
that complicated issues could be solved through good will and that
there were solutions for all issues, noting the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict as an example. He said he had tried not to complicate the
U.S. - Vietnam relationship with his case as he did not want to
hinder "integration" of the relationship. He noted that the USG had
"good will," and therefore could solve problems. Ly told the
Ambassador that he was in prison because he is an activist that had
principles in his struggle. He said he was neither a criminal nor
an extremist, but he had to remain a fighter to continue his

--------------------------------------------- ------

8. (SBU) Ly said that, according to both the Universal Declaration
on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and
Political Rights (ICCPR), he had the right to speak freely.
However, under GVN law, the State could charge him on any one of
many charges, as GVN law is not compatible with international human
rights instruments to which Vietnam has acceded. Ly said that for
speaking his mind in Vietnam he could be charged under GVN law with:
"spreading propaganda against the State;" "taking advantage of
democratic rights;" "disrupting public order;" and even "spying."
At that point, the warden intervened and Ly argued with him before
he was allowed to continue. Ly noted that even at his trial GVN
authorities had made a point to state that international human
rights covenants were not a concern, and asked rhetorically why the
GVN acceded to these instruments if they do not follow them. Ly
said authorities muzzled him four times at his March 2007 trial when
he tried to defend himself, taking him to an isolation room.

9. (SBU) Ly explained to the Ambassador that he had "chosen a
different path," by choosing hardship in order to find a way to
eliminate those provisions of Vietnamese law that were not in
accordance with international law. He accepted this hardship with
the hope that a day would come when things would change in Vietnam
for the better.

10. (SBU) Ly said family members had visited him four or five times
since his March 2007 incarceration. His family sends him both the
local Phap Luat (Law) and Nhan Dan (Party Daily) newspapers. Ly was
particularly grateful for the efforts of the Consul General and
staff of ConGen HCMC for inviting his family to the Consulate on two
occasions, including one during which they spoke with visiting CODEL


11. (SBU) Ly said his family had sent him a Bible but he was not
allowed to read it, as the prison management retained it. He noted
a 2004 prison visit by Senator Sam Brownback, at which he said he
was given a Bible and allowed to retain it as well as other
religious books. However, for this imprisonment, he is not allowed
to read such religious texts, claiming he was told by the prison
management that "new prison regulations are more stringent." Ly
said he nonetheless prayed without a Bible up to one hundred times a
day, praying for his fellow inmates, the prison officials, GVN Prime
Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, President Bush, the USG, and for those
suffering in Iraq and Afghanistan.

12. (SBU) Later, the Ambassador engaged the warden on the issue of
Ly not having access to a Bible. The warden clarified that it was
not prison policy to deny prisoners access to a Bible per se, but
rather a matter of when Ly would be allowed access. The Ambassador
urged the warden to show goodwill, to take into consideration
international opinion, and resolve this minor request by allowing
Father Ly to read his Bible. The warden responded positively that
he could now allow Ly access to his Bible, noting that the prison
otherwise paid "more than adequate attention" to Ly's day-to-day
living conditions.

--------------------------------------------- -------

13. (SBU) Father Ly said the USG and GVN understood religious
freedom much differently. He said the USG understands and "loves"
religious freedom while in Vietnam religious freedom was not truly
allowed nor respected. Ly cited various provisions in different
parts of Vietnamese law about religion "spreading superstitious
beliefs" and individuals "not being allowed to make the sign of the
cross." Ly said he remains constant to his principles on religious
freedom and had drafted and disseminated, in the past a 22-page
document analyzing religious freedom in Vietnam.

14. (SBU) The Ambassador told Ly that the USG was actively engaged

HANOI 00000286 003 OF 004

with the GVN on this issue. He explained that the USG had an annual
human rights dialogue with the GVN, in which religious freedom,
freedom of expression, and media freedoms, among others were all
actively discussed. The Ambassador assured Ly that the USG would
continue to speak out about human rights and agreed that, for
progress to happen, both sides needed to maintain goodwill.


15. (SBU) Father Ly told the Ambassador that it would take
"generations" for Vietnam to build up rule of law, noting that it
took the United States 200 years to build its legal system, and even
then it was still not perfect. He said that Vietnamese law be made
compatible with international law only through "collaborative
efforts of the Ambassador as a diplomat, himself as an activist, and
prison officials. Ly said he accepts his imprisonment to achieve
his goals and saw himself as a "peace activist" and "champion of
peace" for the Vietnamese people, a comment which drew laughs from
the prison officials. Ly reiterated that it was never his intention
to cause disruption and stir up disorder in Vietnam. Unfortunately
the GVN considered his actions outside of prison dangerous, and he
had to accept this.


16. (SBU) As for prospects for release, Ly noted that the USG wanted
him out of prison and even the prison officials wanted him out, but
he did not necessarily want to get out. Ly stressed that he was not
working for himself, but rather for a greater good. Even if he were
released, Ly said he would still "continue his work" and likely be
arrested again. Ultimately, only God would decide when he is
released, Ly said; he is prepared to spend the rest of his life in
prison to continue his struggle.

17. (SBU) Ly told the Ambassador to tell the USG that the GVN really
did not want to imprison him for a long time, but his release would
depend on goodwill and solutions among the GVN, USG and other
players, such as the Catholic Church. He said goodwill was
something everybody shared. Ly said we all want the Vietnamese to
live in happiness and "to become a civilized country," which led to
an interjection from the warden. And he said we all want the
Vietnamese people to have basic freedoms, including "human rights,
democracy, and freedom of speech."


18. (SBU) Ly said freedom of speech in Vietnam was extremely
important but unfortunately its meaning was much different from that
in the United States. For you, he told the Ambassador, freedom of
speech "really means it; it is real for you." But freedom of speech
was built upon a legal foundation. Before Ly left the room, he told
the Ambassador to please understand both our (USG - GVN) fundamental
differences and what we have in common.

19. (SBU) In a wrap-up session with the prison warden, the warden
said the Ambassador should understand that Ly "spoke to his favor,"
and has "extremist tendencies," noting how well he knew him well
from his various incarcerations at the prison. The warden noted
that the GVN Constitution does provide for many of the rights that
Father Ly talked about and added that, at Ly's March 2007 trial, the
police officer muzzled Ly (in photos now made famous around the
world on the Internet) only as a spontaneous reaction to Ly's
screaming and kicking down the podium, which was not shown on

20. (SBU) The Ambassador responded that Father Ly was right in that
goodwill was needed on both sides on these issues. He appreciated
the warden's demonstration of goodwill by providing Ly his Bible and
allowing a longer than usual prison visit. He noted that the USG
position was that individuals should be allowed their different
thoughts on their country's political future and that the USG will
be continuing these discussions with the GVN.

--------------------------------------------- -

21. (SBU) We found Ly to be in surprisingly good health and spirits,
strong and uncowed by his long imprisonment. Although perhaps less
defiant than at his March 2007 trial, Ly remains committed to his
principles and true to his convictions. He is clearly a political
prisoner but unlikely to repent in order to receive amnesty, which
may complicate international efforts on his case. Despite some
initial emotional outbursts, Ly's arguments on Vietnamese legal
reform and religious freedom were rational. Outside of his denial
of a Bible, his prison conditions appear to be adequate. ConGen

HANOI 00000286 004 OF 004

HCMC remains in close contact with his visiting family members.


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