Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – When Ezeigwe Evaristus Chukwuebuka, a Nigerian man was serving his 12-year prison sentence for financial fraud in Vietnam, he expected to fly home and see his family.
Chukwuebuka was convicted in 2012 and released four years earlier after enduring hard labor — defined by Vietnamese authorities as “rehabilitation.” Instead of getting on a plane to Nigeria, he was transferred to a detention center an hour southeast of Ho Chi Minh City in Long An province.
Chukwuebuka was held at the center for two years, sometimes in solitary confinement with his ankles locked in iron shackles while guards sprayed his face with pepper spray.
He was finally released on November 16 after paying 39 million Vietnamese dong ($1,660) in court costs and 230 million Vietnamese dong ($9,810) to the victims of his crime. Another 675 million Vietnamese dong ($27,800), unclaimed by the victims, was written off.
“It’s horrible. It’s prison after prison,” Chukwuebuka told Al Jazeera. “I was severely humiliated, locked in a dark, smelly, small room with no toilet, and my legs locked in bars for two weeks.”
“Racism, insults and carelessness,” he added, “is normal police practice.”
Although Chukwuebuka was released, the situation for those still detained remains complicated, he says.
Trại Giam Long Hòa, the complex where the detainees are held, also includes a prison and detention facilities for Vietnamese juvenile offenders and sex workers.
Chukwuebuka says at least 16 foreign detainees are being held for long periods at the detention center, which he says can hold as many as 100 people. The detainees include nationals from Malaysia, Cambodia, South Africa, the Netherlands, Korea, Nigeria, Taiwan, the Philippines, Hong Kong and Bulgarian dual nationals. All are being held until they can repay court costs and fines and compensate the victims they are deemed to owe as a result of their crimes.
Al Jazeera spoke to seven other detainees at the detention center, all of whom said they believe they will never be released due to difficulties in arranging payment of their alleged debts. A man from the Netherlands has been in the center since the opening in 2017.
“It is absolutely appalling that Vietnam is holding foreign prisoners in what amounts to a debtor’s prison with no hope of release,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.
“There really is no justification for such excessive treatment, which amounts to arbitrary detention, in clear violation of Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. [ICCPR] ratified by Vietnam.”
Cletus Chimaobi Hillary, a 43-year-old Nigerian man who was sentenced to 12 years in 2014 for embezzling more than $30,000, has spent the past 19 months at the center after serving his reduced sentence.
Like Chukwuebuka, he is locked in a dark room, his ankles cuffed.
He also says he was sprayed with pepper spray by guards.
“From what I see, hear here, there is no hope of release,” Hillary said in written correspondence.
“I can’t pay this huge amount while I’m in here. No means of communication, no way to make money or borrow money anywhere, inside here.
‘Another life sentence’
A Vietnamese human rights activist, who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the issue, said the legal basis for centers such as the Long Hòa complex is ambiguous due to the vague laws governing their activities.
Decree No: 65/2020/ND-CP covers foreigners who have served their prison sentence but remain in detention before being deported or paying fines and compensation.
Articles 17.4 and 18 regulate the payment of compensation according to the court’s decision. If individuals are unable to pay, the case is settled under the Civil Judgment Enforcement Act, in which both the state and victims have a say in the reimbursement of fines and damages.
But the reality, according to the human rights worker, is a legal black hole that is difficult to escape without the settlement of the alleged debt or the help of a foreign embassy.
Tye Soon Hin, a 42-year-old Malaysian, was sentenced to 12 years in prison along with two of his fellow citizens for using counterfeit credit cards to steal money in 2014.
Since they served their sentences more than three years ago – also with a reduced sentence – they have been held in the detention center with a total amount of $60,000.
One of the three, Teh Chee Wan, is able to repay the money he owes, but has been told he cannot be released until all three, who have been tried together, have paid their debts.
However, none of the detainees are allowed to work to repay the money.
“It feels really unfair,” Hin told Al Jazeera. “I have paid the price of the crime I committed, but I am still locked up [up] and treated like a prisoner here.”
Hilton Gomez, another Malaysian who spent 20 months in the detention center owed approximately $12,700 in court fines after serving 20 years of a life sentence for drug trafficking, said: “I have always been told that if I comply rules and regulations of the prison, I would get leniency every year so that I could join my family quickly. I had worked hard at the thought of meeting my mother and daughters, but in reality it now looks like I will receive another life sentence here.”
Insufficient health care
Numerous detainees complained to Al Jazeera about inadequate healthcare in the detention center.
Chan King Fai, a 65-year-old Hong Kong detainee, has been incarcerated for more than three years for a debt of approximately $17,000 since serving his prison sentence for fraud.
“I have high blood pressure, diabetes and heart problems, but the worst are my teeth, because of my artificial teeth [fell out] two years ago. I beg the cops to let me fix it. But till today they still reject my application. I can’t eat for about two years.”
Christopher Osinanna Nwadike, a Nigerian sentenced to four years in prison for fraud, owes approximately $5,700. He has been in the detention center for about four months now and says he feels “abandoned”.
“Before my arrest, I had surgery for appendicitis,” he said. “During my sentence period and until now, however, I have had pain in my lower abdomen and severe knee pain. I have requested a medical check-up, but so far my request has not been granted.”
“A friend managed to pay the court fines and costs for me,” he added. “As for the victim’s compensation, it cannot be found at the address provided, and according to the person in charge of this case… the victim has not shown any interest in the reimbursement for more than four years.”
Vietnam’s foreign ministry, which is responsible for dealing with foreign journalists, did not respond to a request for comment.
The detention center for foreigners is barely mentioned in Vietnamese state media, although the Long Hòa complex received media attention in 2019 when a 17-year-old Vietnamese prisoner died after being beaten by staff.
The Dutch embassy confirmed that it was providing consular assistance to a citizen detained in Long An province. All other relevant embassies have been contacted for comment, but had not responded at time of publication.
Vietnam’s treatment of detainees has come under scrutiny in recent years, with guards filmed using electric shocks against detainees and captured activists reportedly tortured and handcuffed, while beatings and forced labor remain rife in drug detention centers.
On September 1, Vietnam announced that it would grant amnesty to 2,434 prisoners, including 16 foreigners. Together, they paid a total of 67 billion Vietnamese dong (about $2.8 million) in fines before being released.
Because they were not considered prisoners, none of the detainees in Long An province were eligible for amnesty.
“The horrific treatment these detainees endure, including handcuffs and verbal and physical harassment and violence, could amount to torture, which is never allowed under international law,” Robertson said.
He suggested that the Vietnamese authorities work with the detainees’ embassies to arrange for their repatriation to their home countries.
“Hanoi could work with those embassies,” Robertson added, “and maybe those of the IOM [International Organization for Migration] Assisted Voluntary Return Program to find a speedy solution that respects rights and releases and departs these foreigners who have been under unjust detention for far too long.”