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 …

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