Vietnam still detains ``a few thousand'' members of the former Saigon government in ``reeducation'' camps, says Justice Minister Phan Hien in an interview. This high number of political prisoners remains a problem, he adds, because such ``administrative'' detention without trial is in sharp contrast to a recent campaign launched by the nation's new communist leadership to instill the rule of law in Vietnam at a time of rapid economic liberalization.
``With more use of the rule of law,'' he said, ``we will have less and less need for reeducation camps.''
Some Western analysts had estimated, based on previous statements from Hanoi, that only about 1,000 such political prisoners remained in the camps following an unusually large release of 480 inmates in September.
Those let free included two ministers of the former South Vietnam government, 18 high-ranking officials, nine generals, 248 field officers, and 117 junior officers, according to the Vietnam News Agency.
Those still detained, and even those already released, will not be allowed to leave Vietnam, Mr. Hien said, until they ``repent and are reeducated.'' Otherwise, he added, ``they might come back wearing green berets [referring to an elite American military corps]. We still have to fight sabotage from outside.''
Close to a million people were placed in reeducation camps during the weeks after the communist takeover of South Vietnam in April, 1975, Hien said. Most stayed only a few days or weeks. By the early 1980s, the number was about 10,000, he said. These were mainly former high-level military and civilian leaders.
Before last month's release, there were less than 6,000, Hien said. He declined to be more specific about the exact number now.
Vietnam's critics refer to the chain of camps around the country as ``a bamboo gulag'' with no pretense of legality. Based on reports from refugees, they claim many prisoners suffered from deprivation and abuse.
Western diplomats in Hanoi believe the prisoner release, and perhaps more to come in the near future, are part of a new drive by Vietnam to improve ties with the West, although there appears to be some opposition within the Communist Party leadership to the releases.
Hien said that those in the camps were never put on trial because many of them would have received the death penalty. ``Then the West could claim we made a blood bath. So we hope they can just reintegrate into society,'' he said. A few Western analysts claim hundreds, if not thousands, of executions did take place in the south after 1975.
A second category of political prisoners are those detained after the initial roundup in 1975, usually for various political offenses under the new government. Hien says the number of such detainees is very fluid, and includes people ``who don't deserve to go to court.''
``But we only keep them a short time. In the future, we hope that the reeducation will take place in the home or in the factory,'' he said.
Nguyen Huu Co, a former defense minister in the South Vietnam government, was the highest ranking official released last month. In an interview at his home in Ho Chi Minh City, he said he thought at the time of his imprisonment in 1975 that he would stay for only a few months. ``I don't know why they released me now. Maybe it is because I am 63 and was a retired general in 1975,'' he said.
The ``reeducation,'' he said, was not brainwashing, but consisted mainly of long political studies. ``The party cadres told us we committed many mistakes against the motherland and that we were tools of foreign imperialists,'' he said. ``I feel sorry for those still in the camps.''
Another ex-military officer who was released, Col. Phan Van Minh, says those not let go include many former intelligence officers and provincial military chiefs of the old Saigon regime. He spent most of his time translating Western accounts of the war, such as the Pentagon Papers, into English for use by Hanoi authorities. A few inmates tried to escape, or committed suicide. Some were kept in isolation for long periods, he said.
Since the 1980s, Mr. Minh said, camp life became easier, and both inmates and the party cadres guarding them often became close.
Both men said they were reluctant to speak truthfully about the camps. They hope to leave Vietnam.
``The general purpose of the camps was to keep us away from the people, so that when we are released, we have lost all our contacts,'' Minh said.