HANOI, Vietnam — One of Vietnam's most prominent dissidents is on the 30th day of a hunger strike in protest against being held under solitary confinement, family members said Monday, casting fresh attention on Vietnam's human rights record ahead of trip by the country's president this week to the White House.
Nguyen Van Hai, also known as Dieu Cay, is serving a 12-year prison term for conducting "propaganda against the state" in relation to his blogging and citizen media activities. His case has been mentioned by President Barack Obama, whose administration is appealing for the release of political prisoners.
It is unclear whether human rights will be discussed in talks scheduled for Thursday between Obama and Vietnam's President Truong Tan Sang. Administration officials have said in the past that closer ties between Vietnam, which shares U.S. concerns about China, would be difficult unless it release dissidents and loosens its grip on freedom of expression.
Hai's son, Nguyen Tri Dung, said he was allowed to meet with his father for five minutes on Saturday at "Prison No. 6" in central Nghe An province. Earlier this month, his ex-wife visited and Hai was dragged away when he told her about his hunger strike.
"He is in a very serious condition, I could not recognize him, his face was color and he could not sit," Dung told The Associated Press.
Dung and Hai's ex-wife Duong Thi Tan were waiting outside the prison on Monday for talks with prison officials.
Prison authorities were not immediately available for comment.
Dung said Hai, 60, told him that he would continue his hunger strike until prosecutors responded to his complaints that he had been put in solitary confinement illegally.
Human Rights Watch said Monday it was concerned about Hai's health.
"The government should also immediately release Dieu Cay without conditions, along with other prisoners held for exercising their rights to express their views and peacefully act on their beliefs," it said in a statement.
Hai is one of Vietnam's most well-known dissidents at home and abroad, and the co-founder of the Club for Free Journalists. The group was established in September 2007 to promote freedom of expression and independent journalism. He was first detained in 2007 as a result of his political views. His 12-year prison term began in September.
The U.S. administration has repeatedly called on Vietnam to allow freedom of expression in the communist country. The ruling party has shown few signs it is listening, apparently concerned that allowing greater political freedom would result in it losing power. The rapid spread of the Internet in the country has opened new avenues for dissent. So far this year, 46 people have been convicted and sentenced for dissident activities, many of them bloggers.