Anton Lê Ngọc Thanh (Vietnam Times)/Jasmine Tran (Danlambao) Translated – “The doctor had a private chat to Trí when he received the test result. Trí said he had already guessed it would not be a good result, and had prepared himself to accept this. The doctor burst into tears and held Trí in his arms. He said ‘This is how they destroy the patriots’. Trí recalled: ‘The doctor offered me some money and said he would try his best to save my life. I told him it did not matter, I only worried about my fellows patriots who were still imprisoned, as, in my time there, I saw with my own eyes, 14 cases of political prisoners who were infected with HIV and died’…”
That’s my fate, but what will happen to my fellow friends in the prison? This was the question Trí asked me, after he received his HIV positive test results.
And I can never forget that day: 28 May 2014.
Huỳnh Anh Trí was born in 1971 in Saigon. In the early 90s, Trí and his family migrated to Thailand. In 1999 in Bangkok, he joined the Việt Nam Tự Do (Vietnamese Liberty) – an organization opposing the dictatorship of the Vietnamese Communist Party.
In December 1999, Huỳnh Anh Trí and older brother Huỳnh Anh Tú were arrested in Saigon. Both were accused of being “terrorists” and sentenced to 14 years, under article 79 of the Vietnamese Criminal Code: carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the People’s administration.
In 2001, Trí was transferred to Xuân Lộc prison in Đồng Nai province. During the period of his sentence, Trí had many disputes with prison guards and officials, as he protested their callous handling of prisoners, particularly of political detainees.
In 2005 and 2006, together with other political prisoners, Trí sent a petition to Minister of Public Security Lê Hồng Anh and to prison officials. The petition protested the prison rule ordering that only one shaving razor blade would be used for a group of prisoners (both criminal and political) – prisoners had to share razors between themselves for both facial and head hair. This unhygienic practice led to the spreading of HIV and other diseases, to the healthy people sharing in the same cell. The petition also critiqued the use of fetters contaminated with blood from HIV infected prisoners, spreading the disease to the HIV-free political prisoners. Trí was a case of being infected with HIV.
Trí said the prisoners were terrified of being fettered with contaminated, unhygienic chains. The same chains were used for HIV and AIDS victims, still retaining marks of blood, skin, and flesh, never having been washed. He recounted: “I questioned a doctor from Department 8 of the Ministry of Public Security – if I was fettered with contaminated chains previously used by HIV/AIDS prisoners, would I be infected with those diseases? He answered he did not know, and this was from a doctor that had come to give us a lecture about HIV/AIDS.”
Prisoners who wanted to prevent being fettered with unclean fetters had to know the “rules”; they would have to use part of their own money in the canteen (the money their family gave them, to be supposedly kept in the canteen) to pay off the officer responsible for the chains. This was how they could ensure clean chains. In some cases, the payment would reach a million (Vietnamese dong). Trí had been shackled with contaminated chains for a long time.
We asked Trí why he wanted to tell the story of his infection with HIV/AIDS. Trí replied, he wanted to condemn the cruelty of the prison system, and to protect political prisoners. Nguyễn Hữu Cầu, who was present at the gathering, added: “I saw a prisoner who was waiting to be fettered to dirty contaminated chains. He knelt down and bowed repeatedly to Lieutenant Giang, begging Giang not to use them on him.”
On 28 May 2014, a HIV test result in a Saigon medical centre read: “HIV Rapid Testing: detected HIV antibodies. Suggest patient to undergo the Elisa HIV test”.
On 29 May 2014, the Elisa HIV test result from the Pasteur Institute, signed by Dr Lê Chí Thanh, informed: the rate of TCD4 was 5.89% (the normal range is around 29.5 – 41.9%). The amount of TCD4 was 44.00/mm3, whereas normally it should be from 576 – 1254/mm3. Trí’s body had symptoms of other diseases attacking, such as skin disease and tuberculosis. He was already in the last stage of AIDS.
Trí’s Godbrother who took him to the tests recalled: “The doctor had a private chat to Trí when he received the test result. Trí said he had already guessed it would not be a good result, and had prepared himself to accept this. The doctor burst into tears and held Trí in his arms. He said ‘This is how they destroy the patriots’. Trí recalled: ‘The doctor offered me some money and said he would try his best to save my life. I told him it did not matter, I only worried about my fellows patriots who were still imprisoned, as, in my time there, I saw with my own eyes, 14 cases of political prisoners who were infected with HIV and died’…”
Trí’s older brother Huỳnh Anh Tú said: “Political prisoners like us must maintain a good reputation; we don’t have tattoos like the criminal prisoners, so becoming infected through tattooing is impossible.”
When asked about Tri’s dreams on his last days, Tri’s partner and carer for the last six months, Võ Thị Ánh Tuyết (born 1986), said: “Trí wanted us to live together in the country. I told him, we should get married now. He said we should wait until he got better, because if something bad happened, it would be a devastating blow to me”.
Trí’s Godbrother continued: “Knowing that Trí was very ill, Tuyết’s parents wanted to visit him. But Trí did not feel that it was fair to make elderly parents have to go to visit him, a younger person. So he got up to go to An Giang, to visit his future in-laws.”
The elderly parents really wanted their daughter to look after Trí. For them, it was their daughter’s blessing and at the same time her karma.
We asked Tuyết why she chose to love a former prisoner. Tuyết calmly thought for a while, then said: “Trí is a person full of love and kindness”
Many people, some who had known Trí for a long time, and others who had not, upon knowing that Trí’s health was in danger, visited him, helped and prayed for him.
On 4 July 2014, around 10:00pm, Tú and Tuyết found that Trí’s health was quickly deteriorating. They took him to Nhiệt Đới Hospital, but the authorities there refused to admit him, suggesting the family to take Trí to Phạm Ngọc Thạch Hospital instead.
In Phạm Ngọc Thạch, Trí was not allowed to be hospitalized, as he did not have a residence permit (hộ khẩu). There, he was fainting, becoming totally unconscious. Hospital doctors and medical staff tried to eject him and his family out of the hospital. However, when one doctor came and shook his body to awaken him, the hospital had no way to refuse, and were forced to admit him.
On 5 July 2014, Huỳnh Anh Trí passed away in Phạm Ngọc Thạch hospital.
After his death, his family asked the hospital to take his body home to arrange the funeral. At this stage, the hospital said again that, as nobody could prove themselves as Trí’s relatives, they could not return his body to anyone. The condition for proving their relation, was that all of them had to have their names on the same residence permit’s book. Yes, that residence permit!
Tú and Trí, after their release from jail at the end of 2013, had had lots of difficulties with security officials, when trying to legally have their names in the same residence permit’s book as their sister Đào. Up until now, they still did not have their own residence permit. So, Trí’s body could not be returned to his family.
The other way to retrieve Tri’s body – by asking the local police to authenticate that Đào was Tri’s sister. As it was a Saturday, the family could not get a hold of any police. They also believed that the police would find a way not to clarify Tri’s family relation, the same way they acted when Tri submitted a form for the residence permit.
There was actually no way to verify Tri’s family relations, for his family to collect his body.
The prisoner of the century Nguyễn Hữu Cầu, who had been with the family right after Tri’s death, told us: “There were some people following us, suggesting they would organize the funeral from A to Z”. According to Cầu, those people belonged to a planned group, not from the normal funeral service people. He heard a woman saying to them: “Today is Saturday – odd, it is not your service day, why are you getting involved?”
Together with Tú, we tried to convince Hương, the nurse manager. We told her that Tú and Trí had been released from prison, and on their prison release certificates the names of their parents were the same. This fact proved that they are brothers. So Tú should have the right to get his brother’s body. Hương replied: “But Tú himself does not have a residence permit. We cannot just grasp onto nothing. We have to follow rules.”
Afterwards, when we requested to see the hospital manager, Hương called a doctor to come over; he too reasoned in the same way. Only until Đào (Trí’s sister) came, showed them both her own, and Trí’s birth certificates, did the doctor call his boss to decide. They then agreed to return Trí’s body to his family.
At around 6:00pm, priests from the Redemptorist Church, broadcasting staff of the Vietnamese Redemptorists’ News, co-workers of the Committee on Justice and Peace, friends from the Vietnam Path Movement, and a few former prisoners of conscience were present at the preparation of Trí’s body in Phạm Ngọc Thạch Hospital. After that, Huỳnh Anh Trí’ s coffin was transported to the hall of Đức Mẹ Hằng Cứu Giúp Parish, on Hoàng Sa Street near the junction of Rành Bùng Binh.
Darkness cannot stop light. It cannot blur the vision of a person with a radiant heart, a person like Huỳnh Anh Trí.
Anton Lê Ngọc Thanh, CSsR