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Human Rights

Joining UN Convention Against Torture Does Not Seem to Stop Police Brutality from Tormenting Vietnam

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Mrs. Nguyen Thi Mai, the mother of Do Dang Du the most famous case in the last two years involving deaths in police detention in Vietnam. Photo Credits: Chau Doan.

Vietnam soon faces the UN’s review compliance on the implementation of the 1984 United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT), which it became the 81st signatory on November 7, 2013.

Despite a showing of strong commitment from the Vietnamese Ambassador to the UN at the time of signing, Le Hong Trung, who condemned all “acts of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of persons and to better protect and promote fundamental human rights”, police brutality and death in police detention remain some of the most urgent social issues in the country today.

Less than a year since the Vietnam’s National Assembly ratified UNCAT in November 2014 and submitted the ratification to UN on February 5, 2015, 17-year old Do Dang Du died from injuries to the head and body while being held in police custody at Chuong My District, Hanoi on October 10, 2015. His death shocked the nation.

Police records showed Do Dang Du was taken to Bach Mai hospital in early October 2015, where died from head injuries two days after. Photo credits: Anh Ba Sam blog

14 lawyers immediately petitioned to the Minister of Ministry of Public Security (MPS), the Chief Procurator of the Supreme People’s Procuracy, and the Chief of Hanoi Police Department to get the details of his arrest and detention.

As it turned out, Du’s death might have been avoided because he was not supposed to be detained at all.

According to some of the lawyers from this group of 14 who petitioned to review his case, under Section 2 of Article 303 of Vietnam’s Code of Criminal Procedures, a minor being alleged to have committed a “less serious” crime, such as theft, was supposed to be released on his own recognizance. Du’s mother confirmed that he was arrested in August 2015 for stealing two million VND (about 90 USD) from a neighbor and taken into police detention, where he was held until taken to the hospital due to injuries from a physical assault in early October 2015.

Yet, Chuong My District Police stood by and continued to affirm that their detention of Du for some two months was done according to laws. However, other facts surrounding this case compelled people to question police’s involvement in Du’s death and demanded more answers.

First, while Du’s three teenager cellmates were arrested and charged with the assault and battery which caused his death, their reasons for getting into an altercation with Du failed to convince the public and Du’s family. The main perpetrator, Vu Anh Binh, also 17-year old, confessed that he had assigned Du to wash their dishes, but because Du did not wash them well enough, leaving them still dirty, Binh got angry and beat him up.

Attorneys for Do Dang Du’s family after being assaulted. Photo credits: Tuoi Tre newspaper.

Du’s family then retained two attorneys, Le Luan and Tran Thu Nam, from the group of 14 to represent them in the matter of their son’s death, but the lawyers soon became victims of physical violence as well. On November 3, 2015, attorneys Luan and Nam were assaulted by a group of eight thugs on their way to visit Du’s mother. The victims identified one of the perpetrators to be Chuong My District police officer Cuu, and they also told the media that they believed the police had followed them since they agreed to represent Du’s family.

Speaking to BBC News – Vietnamese edition at the time, Attorney Tran Quoc Thuan, former Deputy Director for the Office of the National Assembly, demanded that an independent investigation unit should have been convened to invest the police officers of Chuong My District to avoid conflict of interest. Attorney Thuan also mentioned to BBC that some 226 people had died in police custody in recent years.

Attorney Thuan’s claim was based on Vietnam MPS’ own representation to his former employment, the Office of the National Assembly, in 2015 regarding deaths in police custody from 2011-2014, which curiously was not mentioned by the Vietnamese government in their report submitted in July 2017 to the UN regarding the first year of implementing UNCAT from 2015-2016.

However, in the report to the UN, the government did admit deaths and other incidents of police brutality indeed happened. But the numbers from the government, of course, are nowhere near 226. In fact, it is difficult to decipher the exact number from the 51-page report, which also did not include any allegations of death in police detention that Vietnamese newspapers and social media had reported in 2015 and 2016.

What more disturbing is the fact that the report from the Vietnamese government delineates the reality that police brutality often goes unpunished. Impunity is at the heart of this problem, and the government has yet to demonstrate they have dealt with it efficiently.

For example, Paragraph 100 of the report stated: “From 2010 to 2015, People’s Courts had not handled any cases regarding the obtainment of testimony by duress and bribing or forcing another person to give false testimony or provide false documents”.

Further, it provided that in the same five-year period, the Vietnamese courts “only handled and tried 10 cases with the total 26 defendants who committed torture offenses”. Eight out of those 10 cases involved police officers and prison’s guards. (In Vietnam, prison’s guards are also police officers because according to the laws, the MPS has direct control over all prisons in the country).

The family of a victim in one the newest deaths in police detention in Vietnam took his body to the streets to demand justice in July 2017. Police of Ninh Thuan, Phan Rang Province claimed Nguyen Hong De (26-year-old) had hung himself in the temporary holding cell.

Even when police officers were prosecuted and tried for having committed torture of suspects and/or prisoners, they often received very light sentence. Take for example the case of four police officers of Dak Trung prison in Dak Lak Province, listed in Annex 11 of the Vietnamese government’s report to the UN, none of the police officers involved in a prisoner’s death while in their custody was handed actual prison terms.

These four police officers admitted to using “corporal punishment” on a prisoner, Truong Thanh Tuan, during the morning of September 23, 2010. Tuan died on the way to the hospital the very same evening from “respiratory distress syndrome and cardiovascular collapse”. The officers were tried and convicted of “using corporal punishment” under Article 298 of Vietnam’s Penal Code, and their sentence was the minimum “penalty of warning”, which translated into “no jail time”.

Paragraph 45 of the report, the government acknowledged that their laws allow for many other penal code provisions to prosecute criminal acts that carry “torture nature”, some are specifically applicable to police officers, such as “causing death to people in the performance of official duties” (Article 97), “inflicting injury on or causing harm to the health of other persons while performing official duty” (Article 107), “ill-treating other persons” (Article 110), humiliating other persons (Article 121). Vietnam’s laws also allowed for charging perpetrators with multiple offenses for committing the same criminal conducts.

But in reality, the same report also showed that Vietnam’s justice system had not prosecuted any of the listed perpetrators with multiple charges, even when their laws allow for it. In all of the reported cases, the police officers were charged and tried for only one crime, “using corporal punishment” under Article 298.

Taking into consideration the facts and the applicable laws, people have to ask why the offending police officers were not charged with any other crimes besides “corporal punishment” and thus always received just a slap on the wrists for causing serious injuries and even death to suspects and prisoners?

The difference between only charging the offenders with one crime instead of multiple crimes in Vietnam is quite large, and we could see it by studying the facts in one of the most talked about cases involving police brutality in the past five years, the case of Ngo Thanh Kieu of Phu Yen Province.

According to the government report, the 20-year-old Kieu was arrested for theft in the morning of May 13, 2012. He was then interrogated by several police officers of Tuy Hoa District, Phu Yen Province that day, where he was handcuffed and beaten. He was interrogated multiple times on the same day and continued to be interrogated even after showing obvious signs of physical assault. By 5:40 pm, Kieu died on the way to the hospital from injuries to the head which had caused drama to his skull.

The police officers defendants in Ngo Thanh Kieu’s case at trial. Photo credits: Zing news.

While the involved officers were tried and sentenced to prison from nine months to eight years, they were charged, again, only with “applying corporal punishment” under Article 298. Moreover, the highest-ranking officer involved, Le Duc Hoan, Deputy Head of the Investigation Agency of Tuy Hoa District Police, was only charged with “negligence, causing serious consequences” while carrying out official tasks.

It was Hoan who had ordered the other police officers to conduct the interrogation of the victim even after Kieu had shown signs of suffering rounds of physical assault during the first questioning. Yet in the end, it was also Hoan that received the lightest sentence of nine months and was allowed to serve it on probation, meaning he did not have to spend a single day in jail.

The government’s report to the UN also failed to mention that two of the five defendants appealed and got their sentences reduced sufficiently in September 2016. Nguyen Than Thao Thanh was sentenced to eight-year imprisonment but got reduced to five years, while Nguyen Tan Quang’s two-year imprisonment became two-year probation.

Had they been charged with all of the criminal provisions applicable to their illegal conducts, the offending police officers who caused the death of Ngo Thanh Kieu could have faced up to 30 year-imprisonment on a combined sentencing under Article 50 of the Penal Code if convicted.

The story of Ngo Thanh Kieu is not the last to tell about torture and police brutality in Vietnam. In 2017, I have documented nine cases where people died in police detention from January 2016 to September 2017. To date, no one had yet been prosecuted in relation to these cases.

As long as the problem with impunity continues to be as serious as police brutality in Vietnam, it seems that there is still a long way to go for UN CAT to be effectively implemented. At the very least, however, Vietnam should begin aggressively investigating, prosecuting, and trying the perpetrators according to the standards of their current laws, where multiple charges should be filed against those who committed such horrendous crimes against the victims’ basic human rights and took away their most sacred one, their right to life.

Human Rights

The 88 Project: Bringing the silent voices of Vietnam to a larger audience

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A screenshot from The 88 Project's database of Vietnamese activists in prison and at risk.

As a Vietnamese overseas student working on her Ph.D. at Indiana University’s School of Law, Huong Nguyen was focused on her academic career but couldn’t stop thinking about the activist community she was involved with in Vietnam.

This explains why she frequently reached out to students and gave presentations around campus, one of which was the student chapter of Amnesty International.

It was there that she met Kaylee Uland, a blonde, blue-eyed undergraduate whose life growing up in Indiana was far removed from Vietnam and the communist government’s litany of human rights violations that she heard from Huong that day.

“This was one of my first exposures to learning about political prisoners, and it gnawed at me learning that some people were in prison solely because of expressing their political or religious beliefs or a blog post,” Kaylee responded in an email.

Fired up by Huong’s talk, Kaylee began to dedicate herself to advocacy efforts alongside Huong, conducting public outreach efforts on campus and letter-writing campaigns. Around the same time, Huong connected with Ella Gancarz, a filmmaker who wanted to create a documentary about human rights in Vietnam. At the junction of these partnerships, The 88 Project was conceived in 2012.

The group takes its name from Article 88, one of the provisions of the 1999 Criminal Code traditionally used to prosecute activists. The 88 Project’s logo is a pair of handcuffs, which also represents the number ‘88’. According to their website, “the slightly open handcuff in our logo symbolizes the fact that not even prison bars can hold back the ideas of hope, human rights, and democracy.”

From left to right: Ella Gancarz, Huong Nguyen and Kaylee Uland, the founders of The 88 Project. Source: the88project.org.

Over the years, the members have volunteered and worked part-time, on top of their full-time jobs, to put together a weekly newsletter reporting and analyzing the news.

“I believe that regardless of how busy we are if we care enough about something, we can make time for it,” Huong responded in an email. “I am grateful that our team members care enough about our mission to dedicate the time for the project despite their busy career and personal life.”

Kaylee, who is now research director, was the driving force behind the recent expansion of their Database of Persecuted Activists in Vietnam, which now has functions that make it easier for users to navigate. The team has also unveiled the Map of Human Rights Violations.

“We wanted to allow users to interact with the data in multiple ways, depending on their needs and learning style,” Kaylee said.

Although Kaylee doesn’t speak Vietnamese, she is proud to be part of a team that provides an up-to-date English-based source of news on human rights issues, political prisoners, and activists at risk in Vietnam.

“One of our largest challenges has always been gathering, verifying, and processing data from inside Vietnam,” she said. With Huong’s network and Vietnamese language skills, the 88 Project has maintained a strong backbone of research integrity through carefully vetting the information that goes into their news, database, and map. The group also takes security precautions to protect their sources, in-country contributors, and data.

Online activity is heavily monitored and independent media does not exist in Vietnam. According to the 2019 World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders, Vietnam sits at #176 out of 180 countries in terms of freedom of the press, one notch higher than China but one below Sudan.

Despite the challenges facing human rights defenders in Vietnam, the 88 Project finds success in big and small ways, such as when its work is used to advocate for the release of prisoners or when the nonprofit organization is cited in news and journal articles.

“There can be a lot of bad news before you get to hear any good news,” Kaylee said in an audio recording with Memria and the Norwegian Human Rights Fund. “But as a privileged person, as a white, educated, female American, the least I can do is to try to use my voice in some way to bring the very powerful and strong, but unfortunately, silenced voices of human rights defenders working on the front lines to a larger audience.”


Linh Nguyen is a contributor to The Vietnamese. Linh can be reached at linhnguyen1251992@gmail.com and Twitter @LinhVietnam4.

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Freedom of expression

Vietnam: Lawyer Disbarred For Speaking Ill Of Regime and The Communist Party

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Lawyer Vo An Don. Photo credits: Tuoi Tre newspaper.

“I have lost my license to practice law forever, with no apparent recourse available,” Vo An Don, one of Vietnam’s most well-known lawyers in recent years, lamented on Facebook on April 9, 2019. Last week, a high court in Danang ruled that the minister of justice’s decision to affirm his disbarment in 2018 remained effective and final.

The 42-year-old lawyer from Phu Yen province, however, is widely recognized for his fierce advocacy. In the past five years, Don took on cases involving some of the more popular political dissidents, such as blogger Mother Mushroom. But he gained the most public attention when he represented the family of Ngo Thanh Kieu,  a man who died while in custody after being beaten by the police in 2014. Don had demonstrated tireless efforts in bringing those who committed police brutality to justice in Kieu’s case. Yet on November 26, 2017, he was disciplined by his provincial bar association, and his bar license was taken away. In April 2019, the People’s High Court in Danang sided with the disciplinary decision and let the decision stayed.

According to Tuoi Tre newspaper, the reason for the disciplinary action was because of Don’s “abuse of democratic freedoms to write and to give interviews to foreign press and broadcasters to defame lawyers, the prosecutorial bodies, the (Communist) Party and the State of Vietnam with the intent to incite, propagandize, and misrepresent the truth which had negatively affected the reputation of the Party, the State, the prosecutorial bodies, and other Vietnamese lawyers.”

The Phu Yen Provincial Bar Association’s decision to disbar him came only a few days before the appeal trial of Mother Mushroom, which was on November 30, 2017. Don stated at the time in an interview with BBC-Vietnamese that such a decision was probably politically motivated.

It was not the first time, however, that his local bar association had attempted to discipline Vo An Don. In another interview with RFA in 2014, Don already disclosed that the Phu Yen Provincial Bar Association had tried, unsuccessfully, to disbar him a few times during his representation of the family of Ngo Thanh Kieu. But Don was unfazed and continued with the case, successfully bringing the offending officers to justice.

The case of Ngo Thanh Kieu was probably the first one in recent years where the court convicted a group of police officers for causing death to a suspect in custody. Public opinion, however, was split about the sentences handed down to the former police. Some people thought that the jail terms were too light as the longest one was only a five-year-imprisonment. At the same time, many people also saw Vo An Don as the lawyer who fought for the people’s rights and stood against what they perceived as a corrupt system.

The unintended popularity could be the root of the troubles that later followed the lawyer, who practiced law in one of the poorest areas in Vietnam. Don is often dubbed the “farmer lawyer” in social media because he still has to continue farming to support his family. Practicing law in an honest way, he said, cost him opportunities to “get rich” because he refused to be part of the widespread corruption in Vietnam’s judiciary. His popularity and his candid words about the profession together made him an unpopular person among his fellow attorneys. His allegation of corruption among lawyers was one of the statements that cost him his bar license, as reported by The Law newspaper in Ho Chi Minh City on May 24, 2018.

After the Phu Yen Provincial Bar Association issued its disciplinary decision on November 26, 2017, Vo An Don petitioned the Vietnam Bar Federation in December 2017 for a review.  Over 100 Vietnamese lawyers signed a petition asking the Federation to stand by its member’s freedom of expression and stated that the disciplinary action would be a dangerous precedent for the law profession. The Federation still rejected his petition on May 21, 2018.

Don continued to appeal his case with the Ministry of Justice later last year, but the minister of justice also decided against him.

Finally, in December 2018, Don initiated a lawsuit against the administrative decision to uphold the disciplinary action by the minister of justice. But as stated, the court system also did not side with him and effectively allowed the disbarment to remain in effect. The high court in Danang agreed that the dismissal of Don’s case by a lower court was proper.

Both courts had reasoned that the minister of justice’s decision to uphold the disbarment was done within a professional and social organization – the Vietnam Bar Federation. Such a decision did not fall under the categories of subject matters that could be decided in a lawsuit against an administrative order.

At this time, even Vo An Don does not seem to think that there could be any other recourse for him. In the meantime, Don’s case has raised sufficient concerns about the freedom of expression of lawyers in Vietnam and whether their human rights will continue to be subjected to professional disciplinary actions.

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Human Rights

Online Campaign “If not NOW then WHEN?” Seeks To Stop Sexual Abuse In Vietnam

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Vietnamese Facebookers supported the "If not NOW then WHEN?" campaign. Photo Credits: Facebook Ngoc Diep.

An uncommonly successful online campaign is happening in Vietnam with thousands of signatures and with momentum is still going strong. The campaign – “If not NOW then WHEN?” – initiated by seven civil society groups and organizations on Change.org, is the Vietnamese people’s latest and loudest response to a series of highly publicized cases of sexual abuse and violence against women and children uncovered recently in the country.

In addition to signing this petition, hundreds of Facebookers also changed their avatars to include a frame with the slogan “If not NOW then WHEN?” and the hashtag #nhanpham200k (dignity200k) to promote this campaign.

The “200k” hashtag refers to the 200,000 VND amount that the Hanoi police has fined the perpetrator in a recent sexual assault case in March 2019. Although the perpetrator was captured on an elevator’s security cameras while assaulting a woman by kissing her on the mouth, the authorities decided to treat the case as an administrative violation and did not file charges against him. Such a decision has angered the entire nation that has watched the story where his criminal actions unfold on social media, leading some activists and organizations to decide to take action.

The “If not NOW then WHEN?” campaign was launched within a few days after the administrative fine of 200,000 VND was made public. And because the organizers want to stress that a person’s dignity is worth more than the 200,000 VND fine, they have included the hashtag #nhanpham200.

Citing loopholes in the law which allow for unjust decisions such as the 200,000 VND case, the campaign calls on citizens to demand Chairwoman Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan and other members of Vietnam’s National Assembly to take action and change the laws. Their goal is to appeal to the legislative branch to make changes in the Penal Code so that it would be more effective in both punishing the perpetrators in sexual harassment and sexual violence cases and preventing future sexual crimes.

According to Facebooker Ngoc Diep, one of the first activists who has initiated this campaign, the campaigners will collect signatures until early May 2019. Then, they will send them directly to the National Assembly before the beginning of their next congressional meeting – which is expected to commence on May 20, 2019.

By April 9, 2019, more than 13,000 people have signed the petition even though Change.org recently has been blocked in a few areas in Vietnam. It means that those who have signed the petition from Vietnam must take an extra step, which is to get over the firewall before they can add their names to the petition.

It also means that the demands contained within the petition are of great concern for a lot of Vietnamese people.

Why is there such a tremendous response from the public to this petition that led to so many people taking the time and making an effort to make a point about this issue?

Ngoc Diep explained that the campaign has identified with the people’s realization that there are loopholes in the law, which renders the system ineffective in bringing justice to the victims of sexual harassment and sexual abuse in the country.

Recently, several cases of sexual attacks on women and children have caused outrage in society, and yet the legal system was unable to bring the perpetrator to justice. The case in the elevator with the 200,000 VND fine was just one of many such cases.

In another case, a teacher was accused of inappropriately touching his fifth-grade students, but the authorities claimed that his conduct did not fall under the current definition of sexual abuse. The teacher went unpunished.

A suspect in a brutal beating and raping of a 9-year-old girl was allowed bail because the authorities found his conduct did not fall under the “extremely severe” category that would demand pre-trial detention.

Just a few days after the petition “If not NOW then WHEN?” had started, another video clip appeared on social media showing a toddler being grabbed and kissed by an older male stranger in an elevator in Ho Chi Minh City.

The campaign and its supporters have felt an even stronger sense of urgency now, that such change is not only needed but is also inevitable. They want to raise public awareness about sexual harassment and sexual abuse and demand that “the legitimate rights and interests of the people” be protected.

As such, they are hoping that more signatures will be added to the petition in the upcoming days. It is hoped that the increasing public pressure that comes with the petition will then force lawmakers to face this current social crisis of sexual harassment and sexual abuse and institute changes.

Among the demands, the campaign emphasizes the critical role of civil society organizations in raising community awareness, as well as preventing sexual crimes.

The campaigners are especially concerned with the lack of specific and coherent definitions for a variety of conduct that would constitute sexual harassment in the current Penal Code. They also pointed out that the law should also provide for better protection mechanisms for victims of sexual abuse and violent sexual crimes.

The Penal Code is not the only one that needs changes, according to these activists. The Civil Code also needs to be reformed with the guidelines for victims to receive restitution being improved.

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