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Thieu’s Prisoners

Hostages of War: Saigon’s Political Prisoners

by Holmes Brown, by Don Luce
Indochina Mobil Education Project, Washington, D.C., 112 pp., $1.50 (paper)

Rescapés des Bagnes de Saigon: Nous Accusons

by Jean-Pierre Debris, by André Menras
Les Editeurs Français Réunis, 224 pp., 17 F

Not since I started writing about Vietnam in 1955 have I been confronted with a task as urgent and at the same time as complex as the subject of political prisoners in South Vietnam. Both books under review are rich in statistics, case histories, authentic documents, and personal experiences, but they contain by no means all the existing material dealing with the distressing and politically explosive question of what has happened and is still going to happen to the men, women, and children who fill the prisons, detention camps, interrogation centers, and the many local jails in the territories of South Vietnam controlled by the regime of Nguyen Van Thieu. I also have read three brochures on the subject published in Paris (two in French and one in English), and more than a dozen copies of letters and appeals by prominent Vietnamese leaders and humanitarian organizations addressed to the International Commission of Control and Supervision and to the Four Party Joint Military Commission.

In addition, I have three letters addressed to Pope Paul VI, one signed by eight Catholic priests, one by the Reverend Father Chan Tin, vice chairman of a committee for prison reform in South Vietnam, and one containing the signatures of fifty Buddhist women whose husbands or sons or daughters are in prison, some of them arrested more than ten years ago. These letters probably reached the Vatican before President Thieu was received by the Pope on April 9.

The question of how many political prisoners are being kept in the jails and detention camps of South Vietnam has been passionately discussed for many months, not only in Saigon but especially in France, yet the press has not brought it to the attention of Americans. Depending on whom you ask, the answer you get is that their number is somewhere between zero and 200,000. (An exception is the figure of 400,000, which Le Monde on March 16, 1973, claims to have received from a deputy of the South Vietnamese lower house.) President Thieu, in answer to the Pope’s question, repeated what a government spokesman in Saigon had already stated in early March: there were no political prisoners in South Vietnam, only criminals—common law criminals and communist criminals, i.e., persons who had thrown bombs or committed other acts of terror. According to a report from Rome in the Saigon Post of April 10, Thieu gave the number of these criminals as 8,081. (Previously he had spoken of 20,000 common criminals and 5,000 political prisoners, the latter, according to him, all communists.)

Not only the four authors of the two books under review but also Amnesty International, the Overseas Buddhist Association, and the Fellowship of Reconciliation estimate the number of political prisoners in South Vietnam to be at least 200,000. The documents I received and the interviews I had, during my recent visit of ten days to Saigon, with many knowledgeable people about the political situation made it clear to me that the official statistics are clumsy lies. But although I am convinced that a figure exceeding 200,000 is close to the truth, nothing I learned in my investigations enables me to supply uncontestable proof for such a statement. True, this figure has been given by others whom Luce and Brown cite in their book, including The New York Times, which reported on September 7, 1972, that Ngo Cong Duc, a former legislator and former president of the Saigon Publishers Association, put the number of political prisoners in South Vietnam at 200,000. (A news release of the Canadian Anglican News Service even mentions a total of more than 240,000 political prisoners.)

There are many reasons why these figures cannot be precisely substantiated. Nobody knows exactly how many prisons, provincial detention camps, interrogation centers, and jails at police stations and military compounds exist in South Vietnam. No one, not even a commission of senators or members of the lower house, is permitted to conduct an independent investigation (let alone a foreigner like myself, whose opposition to the Thieu regime is well known to Saigon officials). Nevertheless, the documents in my possession, the material in both books under review and in the three brochures, and my interviews with people concerned with Vietnamese politics lead me to agree with the authors of Hostages of War and Nous Accusons, who claim that the number of political prisoners held by the Saigon government exceeds 200,000.

I interviewed more than twenty prominent people, including several officials, four Buddhist senators, two Catholic members of the lower house, six professors, two lawyers, half a dozen Vietnamese journalists, and four foreign correspondents. Four had been members of the various Saigon governments before the election of Nguyen Van Thieu as president. Three of the professors were deans of their respective faculties; one, the Reverend Father Chan Tin, is the acting head of the Catholic-sponsored committee for prison reform in South Vietnam, and still another, the prominent Buddhist Senator Tran Quang Thuan, heads a commission working for the release of all political prisoners.

Two American correspondents told me they estimated there were 70,000 political prisoners. But I learned nothing from any American working for the embassy, the USAID, or the USIS. Except for one high official of the embassy, who gave me the ridiculous figure of 1,000 political prisoners, American officials avoided discussing the subject with me, although they could not have failed to know what I learned after only a few days in Saigon from my various Vietnamese informants about the number of inmates in the larger prisons of South Vietnam.

There are, so far as I know, between 9,000 and 10,000 prisoners at Con Son (the island formerly called Poulo Condore), between 8,000 and 10,000 in the Chi Hoa prison of Saigon, between 6,000 and 8,000 in the Thu Duc prison, between 6,000 and 10,000 in the Than Hiep prison, etc. These figures do not include the prisoners in the forty-six or sixty (depending on whom you ask) provincial detention centers, each holding between 1,000 and 3,000 people. In addition to the larger prisons, there are, I was told, anywhere between 400 and 800 smaller district prisons where people are being kept, some only for a few months but others, as is the case also in the provincial detention centers, for one or several terms of two years.

How many prisons and inmates there are is a “state secret.” Still the senators, professors, lawyers, and journalists I interviewed were able from the information smuggled out of prisons or obtained from released prisoners to draw more or less informed conclusions about the number of prisons and of persons jailed throughout South Vietnam. Some of these people did not have as much information as was available to others who were more concerned with this political problem. This explains why the figures I was given about the total prison population, all of them by opponents of both the communists and the Thieu regime, varied from 50,000 to 200,000, the latter figure considered by most as closer to the truth. Significantly, the letter written to the Pope by eight Catholic priests on April 4, 1973, states: “In spite of what the spokesmen of the Saigon government say, hundreds of thousands of political prisoners still fill the numerous prisons in South Vietnam.”

It was as difficult to obtain even an approximate estimate of the percentage of real communists and their sympathizers among the persons kept in the jails and camps of South Vietnam as it was to determine the precise number of prisons and their inmates. Most of those I questioned tended to consider that most political prisoners are noncommunist opponents of the Thieu dictatorship. A former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Senator Vu Van Mau, who for years has vainly tried to obtain the release of 1,400 Buddhists arrested in 1966, estimates that 70 percent of those imprisoned under the so-called Phoenix Program had nothing whatever to do with the armed and propaganda activities of the National Liberation Front. Don Luce, co-author of Hostages of War, who spent thirteen years in Vietnam with the International Voluntary Services and as a Research Associate of the World Council of Churches, said in a taped statement for a press conference held by Amnesty International on April 30:

There are more than 200,000 political prisoners in the jails of the Saigon government. Buddhist monks, Catholic priests, teachers, writers, students, lawyers, laborers, and farmers. They include old people, women, children, and the sick.*

(Included in the officially admitted figure of 9,850 persons in the Con Son island prison, euphemistically called a re-education center, are 1,058 women.)

Among the political prisoners there are no doubt a great many communists and Viet Cong sympathizers. But as Don Luce and Holmes Brown document, it does not take much expression of discontent for any person to be labeled a communist and sentenced to many years of hard labor. Article 2 of Decree Law 93/SL/CT states that “any person who commits acts of propaganda for any incitement to neutralism shall be considered as pro-Communist Neutralist.” Another article of the many Decree Laws through which the Constitution is in effect abolished says that any person who commits any act to undermine the anticommunist spirit of the country shall be sentenced to hard labor. These sentences may be for two, five, or even twenty years, or, in many cases, solitary confinement with hard labor for life.

The figure of 200,000 political prisoners, probably correct up to the spring of 1972, may well have increased considerably after the start of the communist offensive in April, 1972. Time reported on July 10, 1972, that arrests were continuing at a rate of 14,000 people per month. The Washington Post of November 10, 1972, carried the following item: “On November 10, 1972, Hoang Duc Nha, President Thieu’s closest adviser, reportedly told a group of Vietnamese publishers that 40,000 communist agents had been arrested throughout the country in the past few weeks.” Since it is most unlikely that the regime has released any of these alleged 40,000 communist agents, Thieu’s statement to the Pope that there are a mere 8,081 prisoners in South Vietnam was not only a brazen but also a stupid lie.

These arrests by no means stopped after the cease-fire agreement was signed on January 27, as anyone in Saigon who is concerned with the problem can confirm. According to article 8 (c) of the Paris Agreement, the political prisoners should have been freed within ninety days after the signing of the Agreement. In letters addressed to the Pope and to the Chairman of the International Commission of Control and Supervision, the Reverend Father Chan Tin wrote, on behalf of the committee of prison reform in South Vietnam:

We are saddened by our observation that the government of the Republic of Vietnam not only refuses to release political prisoners but also is arresting more people for political reasons and is treating more and more brutally political prisoners presently detained.

  1. *

    See NYR, May 31, 1973, for Luce’s full statement.

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