(Excerpted from San Jose Mercury News, October 11, 1987 article by Dennis Rockstroh)

In the years following the fall of Saigon, the communist victors exacted a cruel revenge on hundreds of thousands of its citizens in an extensive network of re-education camps. Executions, torture and constant, numbing brutality were cloaked in a veil of secrecy manufactured by Hanoi. It wasn’t until thousands of Vietnamese, including many escaped prisoners, flowed into San Jose and other U.S. cities, that the story began to emerge.

This is what the Vietnamese government did to its people:

    • Executed thousands of its vanquished opponents. A report by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley estimated that 65,000 people were executed in the eight years after the communist victory in 1975. The U.S. State Department reported to Congress that “executions number in the tens of thousands.”
    • Consigned as many as 500,000 people to extended stays in the camps. Scholars believe that at one time there were as many as 300 camps throughout Vietnam, most of them near Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon.
    • Sent people to the camps for indefinite terms without bringing formal charges against them or conducting judicial proceedings of any kind.
    • Subjected prisoners to intense political harangues and forced them to write detailed confessions of their supposed crimes. Many prisoners said they had to revise their confessions dozens of times before they were deemed acceptable. Some inmates said they were forced to betray other prisoners for imaginary crimes in order to prove their sincerity.
    • Tortured prisoners in an attempt to get information about political opposition, military resistance movements and conspiracies to escape. According to the former prisoners, the list of torture techniques included ripping out fingernails with pliers, whipping prisoners with live electric wires, hanging inmates from the ceiling and beating them and forcing prisoners to drink water and then jumping on their bloated stomachs.
    • Disciplined prisoners by locking them in metal storage boxes called connexes, where the temperature often soared above 120 degrees. Water was sometimes denied as punishment, and some former prisoners said they drank their own urine. Others reported that some prisoners were chained so long that maggots grew in the wounds on their wrists or ankles.
    • Forced inmates to perform hard labor while providing only the most rudimentary food and medical care. Many prisoners starved to death, while others were left to die a lingering, painful death from disease.

Although the U.S. government knew of the suffering of the people who were its staunchest supporters during the war, it did little to spotlight the problem, relying on little-publicized reports, low-key talks and occasional congressional resolutions.

When U.S. officials asked in 1987 that the re-education camp prisoners be released to settle here in the U.S. Hanoi finally agreed. But an official told me that Hanoi had done nothing wrong by imprisoning the losing side in the war. “It is Vietnam’s right to punish these criminals as the European countries did with the elements who had cooperated with Hitler. It is the legitimate right of all states to protect their national rights.”

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