Persecution in Vietnam: a Christian human rights lawyer's story

(Photo: Unsplash/Ashim D'Silva)

Christian human rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai knows what it means to suffer for what he believes.  After providing legal advice and representation to victims of human rights abuses, including religious minorities, across Vietnam, he found himself the target of persecution and ended up in prison.

As a result of his work, Dai was repeatedly harassed and attacked by the authorities.  In 2015, he was arrested again as he had been preparing to meet European Union representatives who were in Hanoi for the annual EU-Vietnam human rights dialogue.  That meeting never came. 

He was eventually released from prison into exile in June 2018 and has, since that time, continued to raise awareness of the plight of religious minorities in Vietnam.  

He speaks to Christian Today about his experience and the religious freedom he dreams of for his country. 

CT: You have been harassed for providing legal support to victims of human rights abuses. Why do the authorities feel threatened by you?

Nguyen: When I became a Christian, I began my work defending God's children. God inspired me to become a human rights lawyer and defend those who are harassed by the Vietnamese government such as independent churches and pastors. I wanted to change my country.

God is the inspiration for my work and with my faith I continue my work. God called me and what he wants me to do, I do.

Because my activities relate to human rights and the promotion of religion in Vietnam, the government of Vietnam is worried that my work will destabilise them. The government believes that Christianity is a corrupted ideology from 'the West.'

CT: When did things start to become difficult for you? What kind of harassment have you experienced because of your work?

Nguyen: In 2000 I took the case of defending a Christian pastor, Pastor Thuy. It was at that point that I understood God was calling me to serve. That was when it started.

From 2000 to 2007, I was mainly defending Christians. I began to open many classes to teach young people in Vietnam about human rights.

In 2007, I was sentenced to four years in prison and four years under house arrest. I was charged with propaganda against the Vietnamese government.

On 6 December 2015, I was stopped by 20 policemen. They beat me in the face and drove me into the middle of nowhere. They took everything, including my clothes, and threw me on the seaside on a cold winter evening. Eventually I made my way to a small village of mostly Christians and they were able to organise a bus to take me back to Hanoi.

Nine days later EU officials were in Hanoi for a human rights dialogue between the EU and Vietnam. I was on my way to meet the EU delegation when I was stopped by a group of 50 security officers who beat us, seized my computer and put me in jail. It was 11 months before I was able to meet with my wife.

CT: Was it a shock to you when you were arrested?

Nguyen: When I was arrested for the first time in 2007, I wasn't worried for myself because I was prepared. I was worried for my wife because I understood that the government puts pressure on the family and friends of those in prison to abandon them and stop supporting them. My wife was young and she didn't have experience dealing with the government. The police in Vietnam are horrible and they would try everything to mentally harass her so she felt scared and alone and so she would stop supporting me.

CT: You spent four years in prison. What were the conditions like? Did your Christian faith help you through this time?

Nguyen: The first time I was in prison there was lots of suffering, especially in the first ten months. We had no clean water for drinking and had to use a sock to filter it at least five times so it was drinkable. They also gave us vegetables which were very dirty – they would put them on the floor and there were slugs and leeches on them. We would get a very small bit of meat on one day each week.

Lots of people had health issues, either with their stomach or their skin, but I was very fortunate because I prayed very often so I didn't catch any diseases.

After that I was moved to a prison with other Christians like me - that was better. There were around 60 to 70 people in one room. We shared our faith together and helped each other through the hard times.

The third prison I was in, in 2015, had better conditions, but the wardens would think of little things to make our lives difficult like waking us up in the middle of the night to take medicine. They also deliberately planted people in my cell to talk very badly about Christians and Christianity in order to take my faith away, but of course it didn't take it away.

They tried to make me lose my temper and my sanity but my faith kept me going. I felt that God was protecting me even when the prison authorities did things like putting soap in my food to make it inedible. I kept believing and trusting in God and in the end I made it through okay.

CT: Has that experienced changed your life or faith in any way?

Nguyen: Sometimes I prayed to God and asked "Why do I have to go through this? Why do I have to be in prison for so long?" I felt Him say "Your reward will be even greater than your trials." I believe I can use my experience, hardship and wisdom to help young people in Vietnam.

CT: Since your release last year, has the harassment continued or have things improved for you?

Nguyen: After I was arrested I asked God for guidance because I knew the sentence would be over ten years. I felt God told me that it would be better for me to move to another country to continue my work as I can't do much from prison. Six months after being detained I was offered to go to Australia. But my wife was travelling and so we couldn't communicate in order to agree if that was ok. Then it was on hold for two years before being told to go to Germany, Australia or the USA.

I had a dream where I dreamt about Germany which I realised was God's call to go to there. So I decided to accept the offer to emigrate to Germany and I feel it has been the right decision. The condition of living in Germany is better, which allows me to continue to fight for people's rights and democracy in Vietnam, but I always want to return to Vietnam.

What would you like Christians to pray for in Vietnam?

Nguyen: Please pray for young people in Vietnam to be more involved in human rights activities and to come together to fight towards democracy and to stop this harassment.