Vietnam dissident 'Mother Mushroom' describes prison hunger strikes

(Reuters) - A Vietnamese dissident known as “Mother Mushroom” went on hunger strike three times during her imprisonment before Hanoi released her, she said on Friday after arriving in the United States.

Vietnamese dissident Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, who goes by the pen name Mother Mushroom, speaks with a reporter during a video conference on her laptop computer in Houston, Texas, October 19, 2018. Courtesy of Chi Dang/Handout via REUTERS

Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, a 39-year-old blogger and environmental activist who adopted Mother Mushroom as a pen name, said she believed Vietnam timed her release to coincide with the visit this week of U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis.

Speaking to Reuters by Skype video from Houston, Quynh described her two years in prison, where she said she was isolated from other prisoners to keep her from influencing them, including the previously unreported hunger strikes.

“The shortest was seven days and the longest was 16 days,” said Quynh, speaking at times through an interpreter and at times in broken English.

A representative for the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.

Despite economic reform, openness to social change and closer ties to former foe the United States, Vietnam’s Communist Party rulers retain tight media control and do not tolerate criticism.

Quynh said she witnessed other female inmates forced to take showers outdoors in harsh weather and share a cell with up to 50 others.

“Female prisoners have absolutely no privacy,” said Quynh, who was among 13 women to receive an International Women of Courage Award last year.

Quynh was arrested in 2016 and sentenced to 10 years in jail last year for posting reports, including one about civilians dying in police custody that police deemed to be anti-state. She was released for humanitarian reasons, and her jail term suspended, Vietnam’s foreign ministry said.

The United States sees Vietnam as an important partner in the face of China’s rapid rise, but Washington has criticized Hanoi over human rights.

A U.S. State Department spokeswoman said that aside from having called for the release of Quynh, Washington has also advocated for others imprisoned in Vietnam for “exercising their human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Quynh said she initially felt sad about the prospect of living in exile after a U.S. embassy official visited her in prison on July 24 and said she would be released to live in the United States.

“If I have the right to choose, I want to stay in Vietnam, but I have two children so I have to think about the future.”

She left with her 12-year-old daughter, 6-year-old son and 63-year-old mother.

Quynh does not believe her release, or the release in June of Vietnamese human rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai, signaled any change in Vietnam’s policy on political prisoners.

Human Rights Watch said Vietnam had adopted a strategy of political repression under which it arrests activists on “bogus” charges, jails them for long terms and then offers a “freedom for exile deal” and claims credit for the release.

Two Vietnamese-Americans were sentenced to 14 years in prison last month for “attempting to overthrow the state” and 10 other “accomplices” were sentenced to shorter jail terms, a court official said.

Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington and James Pearson in Hanoi; editing by Bill Tarrant and Grant McCool