“When will daddy come home?”


Nguyen Tri Dung (English version by Danlambao)

“When will daddy come home?” – My little sister, Bi, anxiously asked at dinner. I kept on eating without a word, while our mother turned to switch on the TV to listen to the news. I don’t know how many times her question has been repeated since the day our father was arrested in April 2008, nor do I remember how many times my mother and I answered her in silence. Our meals among the three people and a dog often exist amid the noise coming from the T.V. set… like tonight.

The days preceding the trial of Sept. 24, the security police continued to pay their visits and sent us their “invitations” with ridiculous contents, demanding more “working sessions” with us. Then “the homeless” (a local term I gave to the police in plain clothes) occupied our front door, watching, eating, sleeping, lying, sitting in their car and on the sidewalk. Any of us who stepped out of the house could immediately hear their shouting, calling on each other to block us, or to follow us on their motocycles. They often followed us so closely that we could smell the foul breath from these heartless machines living off cigarettes. My mother and I could have predicted the unjust sentence that the authorities would give my father at the trial, just from our observation of the facts that the authorities had given a green light allowing their “thugs-for-hire” to beat up my mother in Bac Lieu city, and to chase after me with the intention to stage a traffic accident. The days before the trial, the authorities’ threats became more and more overt. 

5 a.m. on the trial day, Sept. 24, 2012: 

In front of our residence’s communal gate, which was not yet open for the day, a few security police, local security guards, and more than five plain-clothed agents were already sitting in their truck, talking, laughing loudly and sharing cigarettes. There was hardly a soul yet in the street at this early hour of the morning, which made their conversation and laughter echoed so loudly that even from the high balcony, I could hear them clearly. Nevertheless, instead of listening to them and figuring out what it was that made them talk so cheerfully among themselves, I began to think of how they would be arresting me and my baby sister this morning…

The “homeless” with their truck

6:30 a.m.: 

My sister and I were ready to leave: her off to school and I, to the court house. My thought at that moment was simple: “Education is important. I am a free individual. I have never committed any crime. I, myself have been forbidden to continue my studies. It would be absurd for me to think that these security police would lose any last ounce of humanity left within them to stop my baby sister from going to school too. I would just simply take my sister to school. There would be nothing to worry about”. But I was wrong… they didn’t need any logical reason. When I came out, a guard wearing a plain shirt rushed out to call over more than seven agents, in police uniform as well as in plain clothes, and they all tried to stop us. The agent wearing the yellow shirt (photo attached) blocked me off and tried to snatch the key from my motorcycle’s ignition. He screamed: “where do ya think y’re going?”. “Your wearing black is an offence…”, “Committing an offence results in your coming with us to the police station”… Surely you could guess all kinds of naive questions that I would have thrown back at them such as “why would wearing black be an offence?”, “what offence did I commit?”, “who are you people?” etc. … unfortunately instead of answering me, they all rushed in to twist my arms behind my back, and pushed, and pulled me out from my motorcycle. All the while another plain-clothed agent with a challenging look on his face, took out his mobile phone to make a call. 

My little sister, Bi, bursted out in tears. The agent in a plain shirt called over another local security guard. The latter suggested that I complied and went along with him. I knew it would not be good for my sister to witness any more of this so I turned my head back to quickly tell my sister: “go back upstairs and protect yourself”; all the while these self-claimed to be security police twisted my arms to the back and kicked me as they would capture a wild animal … I didn’t know if my sister could hear anything I said to her in the midst of all the senseless screaming and shouting of these distorted individuals. I only remembered that when we reached the street, I turned back to see my little sister still standing crying at the bottom of the stairs. Some neighbours in the building who unfortunately had to witness all this were quickly rushing by to avoid these loud and aggressive assailants.

When approaching closer to the street, I was pushed hard and tight into the metal rod of their truck, I yelled out several times: “what did I do wrong?”. I was trying to test the degree of desensitization of the bystanders. De-sensitized or scared? I asked myself of their inaction? Maybe both. It meant the same thing when one faced against the skillful and machine-like oppression from these non-uniformed, no-identity individuals, but above all, when they would bear no responsibility, no accountability for whatever they did. So I was utterly alone, by myself, I still naively screamed those 4 words until they grabbed my hair and pushed my head in first inside their truck. These nameless individuals hastily answered my question with both their “body language” and with words: they punched and kicked me non-stop and at the same time, cursed me “F…you! what offence? what offence you asked???” …. 

Local district security police, ward police, neighbourhood police … I knew all their faces and they were all there. These local agents were careful not to engage directly in beating me but were very actively helping the act by blocking off the street and chasing away curious bystanders.

No-identity agents

I, Nguyen Tri Dung, who not only had a direct interest in the trial but more importantly was an immediate family member of the accused’s – my father’s. I was someone who should have received a notice to attend the trial and also to provide witness statements for the defence regarding the allegations against my father, when called upon. I was someone who should not have been absent at the so-called public trial. But on the contrary, this someone was “kidnapped” as the first one of the many arrests to follow during the course of Sept. 24. 

In less than 3 minutes later:

The truck that captured me turned on its siren and raced to the police station in hostility. The two plain-clothed police breathed heavily as they tried to hold me down tightly in the back seat. Suddenly I thought of my dad on the day that he was arrested and taken to the police station in this same manner. He was consistently treated this way back in early 2008 until he left Saigon to go to Dalat city for health care treatment, and there he was arrested urgently on April 19, 2008. That was 9 days before the Beijing Olympic torch was to be relayed in Saigon.

My father – blogger Dieucay Nguyen Van Hai and his friends with posters saying Paracel and Spratly islands belong to VN

I stepped down of the truck and saw on all sides, local security police, local security guards, and plain-clothed agents. In the wind, the smell of burnt cigarettes seemed to have been awaiting the arrival of my black shirt that day. I took an effort to stand up straight so that they could see and read my black shirt clearly before Mr. Tran Song Nam directed two nameless agents to pull me into a “working room”. I knew the faces of these two nameless agents well because they had been persistently staking out in front of our house every time there was a foreign reporter, an international human rights organization, or a foreign diplomat who came to Vietnam and the authorities suspected that these concerned “foreigners” might have requested a meeting with our family regarding my dad’s trial. These two agents were so predictable and persistent to the point that I voluntarily changed their job duty to that of an “alarm clock”: each time I saw their faces snooping in front of our house, I immediately knew there ought to be something important concerning my dad and my family that I needed to know.

These two nameless faces sat across from me and asked me trivial questions. I answered their questions with always the same question: “what did I do wrong?”. That stopped them from talking. With sniggers, they took out a mobile phone to take pictures of me. 

The loud conversation exchange coming from their Motorola devices cut short our trivial questioning: “A2 reporting, there are 7 people wearing black walking from Ky Dong St. direction”. One of them quickly turned the volume of his reporting device lower. However another agent standing outside of the room, on the other side of the iron-barred window, replied to the other party on the Motorola phone device, that helped me put together the rest of their report: “Remember to arrest them immediately at the waiting area… Try not to move the barricade…” These two nameless then rushed out of the room without failing to signal another local security guard to use a chair to jam shut my detention room’s door, and to sit on the outside watching me, who just became “their prisoner”. To satisfy my curiosity, I put my ears to the iron bars of the window to listen to their chasing, arresting and reporting coming from their Motorola reporting devices coming from outside. Like a little kid hiding behind a stage curtain to sneak a peak at the show without paying for the show ticket, I overheard that: “the black-coloured clothes have been coming from all directions now towards the court house”. Then each individual wearing black was either arrested and taken to the police station or forced to turn back home: “Tell them either go to the station or go home”, “arrested because they occupied the sidewalk, blocking the traffic”, “arrested for administrative questioning” … It was all from a male, older voice who quickly gave direct orders for the arrests over the reporting device… 

8:20 am: 

All of a sudden, the local police station of Ward 6, District 3 became noisy. From the iron-barred- window, I saw more than one truck racing into the driveway. I caught a glimpse of my mother who was being pulled down the truck by four plain-clothed agents. They twisted her arms backward and lifted her off the ground. She was resisting with all her might against their arbitrary arrest. An older agent in a white shirt was giving orders to other plain-clothed police to rush in to “beat the f. out of her”, referring to my mother and also to the other women who were wearing black who had just been brought in. I noticed among them, female blogger, Thuc Vi, the two sisters of blogger Ta Phong Tan, the co-accused on the same trial with my dad, (Ms. Ta Minh Tu and Ms. Ta Khoi Phung), and Father Thanh from the Redemptorist church, who was holding in his arms Ms. Tu’s baby boy. They were all roughed up badly then pushed and pulled into the courtyard of the police station. I screamed and yelled out to them: “Mom, mom are you hurt? Miss, aunties, uncles, are you ok?” Then I held my breath to watch each of them being pulled across the courtyard. Each person was kept in one detaining room. The noises died down. Then every now and then there was a loud screech or a kick into the door that made my imagination reacted … 

Then a security police agent in full uniform with an army crew haircut walked in. As he was wiping off the sweats trickling down on his chin, and telling the local security guard who had been watching me: “F***. just like fighting in battles” 

Short of 9 am (from behind the iron-barred window): 

The phone was ringing off the hook that caused Mr. Vu Van Hien to cry out angrily: “why nobody answers the damn phone?”. There was a female voice answering him, whose face I couldn’t see: “there is some jerk who has been calling non-stop, asking for Mr. Nam, questioning why we arrested people”. The phone kept ringing, and as if without thinking, Mr. Hien picked up the phone and said: “we don’t arrest anyone here”, then slammed the phone down. (Days afterwards I learned from a friend who told me that there had been some supporters who used the nicknames of “brother Five, and brother Seven”, who even during their working hours and shifts, kept calling to demand the police to release those detained. I deeply appreciate all those who showed their concerns and took quick, timely and persistent action to support us that day). 

Perhaps the security police was well trained in “prisoner” psyche, knowing that I would be bored out of my mind, so they let a local ward police officer who wore no badge nor name tag to enter my detention room twice. The first time he threw on the desk some paper and a pen and said to me “write your report now”. I asked: “report about what?” what did I do wrong?”. I was terribly amused with his answer: “why you were arrested, you write it down! Those who arrested you were not police agents from this ward, so I don’t know why you were arrested. Now I am a police officer of this ward, I ask you to answer me why you were arrested”. I said clearly: “the security police truck, the local police officers all assisted in my arrest this morning, I’ve been asking the authorities to inform me of the reasons why I am being detained, now you’re asking me to provide you with the reasons why I’m being held??? I honestly don’t know what to say to you.” He was silent for a few seconds, then left the room, but not before he threw back over his shoulder a last warning: “if you don’t write your report now, then just sit there, if you’d like; until you’re allowed to go home”. Then he signaled the local security guard to bar the door using a metal chair. The second time it was when Mr. Hien who was standing outside of the iron-barred window giving the order: “strip his black shirt and file it as evidence”. This time, the same security police agent re-entered my room and said: “wearing this T-shirt is an offence. Take it off yourself.” But he could not answer me why wearing this black shirt was an offence, so he left the room again. But again, not without threatening that if “you don’t take it off yourself, we’ll force you to take it off”.

The Free Dieucay, Taphongtan, Anhbasaigon T-shirt

2 p.m.: 

Words came with action. Mr. Vu Van Hien and five local security guards and a few plain-clothed agents approached my detention room. My mother who was detained in the next room had been released and was ordered to go home immediately. Knowing that I was still detained there, my mom rushed over but was stopped by Mr. Hien and some others. This time, the minute the metal chair barring the door was removed, an agent in a blue/green T-shirt barged in quickly with a threatening voice: “I’m telling you to take your black shirt off yourself, nobody wants to do it the hard way”. I asked: “how is wearing black wrong?”. He replied: “The sentence was handed out at trial. Now you keep on wearing this shirt is a violation of the law”. I was straightforward: “if you want to take it by force, you can, but I believe I did nothing wrong, so I’m not taking it off voluntarily”. Another agent rushed over to pull off my shirt. The strange thing I noted was that while he was trying to pull off my black shirt, he kept saying loudly “yes, good!, you take it off yourself. It is so much easier this way, isn’t it?”. I assumed they were recording it to fabricate evidence later that they were not applying force on me and that I volunteered to take off my black shirt by myself, so I said loudly “No, I am not taking it off myself”. Upon hearing it, Mr. Hien who was trying to stop my mom outside of my detention room, turned and cursed at me “do you believe I would break your f. mother’s neck? Freedom, my dick!!!” (sorry for my repeating his exact vulgar words). He then ordered the rest of them to come into the room and to forcibly strip me off of my black T-shirt. When they succeeded taking it off, the agent in the green/blue T-shirt tried to push my neck down so that he could force over my head one of their shirts. I resisted as long as I could, and upon seeing that his agents could not pull over me the shirt that they had prepared for me, Mr. Hien yelled out: “let him f… naked going home”. And that was the last sentence I heard from an official before leaving the ward 6, district 3 police station on the memorable day of Sept. 24, 2012.

Walked home with my mom

My mom and I walked home. She told me in anger that they sentenced my dad to 12 years of prison term and 5 years of house arrest. So there it was: after the record-breaking long period of temporary detention followed by another long investigative detention, was a record-breaking short trial, ended by a long jail sentence that was also record-breaking unjust.

Later, our defence lawyer gave me and my mom the following update of the court proceedings that morning:

– There was no examination nor cross-examination between counsel and witnesses, and absolutely no cross-examination between witnesses and the defendants. 

– All defence counsels were cut off while they were giving their defence statements, and the defendants were also cut short while speaking. 

– There were 3 witnesses (for the prosecution) out of 10 in total, were present at the trial. When questioned by the defence, the prosecutor could not present any written statement from the rest of the witnesses asking to be excused from trial. So these 3 witnesses were the only “evidence” used in court that morning to find the defendants guilty of their offences. 

– The evidence in regard to “propaganda” and “causing serious damage to national security” were not presented nor disclosed in any way by the prosecution, despite the repeated requests from the defence.

– The whole trial lasted 5.5 hours for a guilty sentence that must have been pre-calculated to push my dad over the average age of life expectancy in Vietnam: 70 years. 

There were too many thoughts inside my head that I was still trying to process, so instead of showing my anger, I just kept walking in silence. The bystanders in the street seemed to have regained a little of their sensitivity and concerns, they now pointed at me, talked among themselves and laughed at us. I remained half-naked and came home with my mom while the grey sky was getting ready to downpour its evening rain.

Nguyễn Trí Dũng / Christine D.