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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

Latest Review Under UN’s Human Rights Treaty Body Highlighted Vietnam’s Dismal Records

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The ICCPR Review of Vietnam During the HRC's 125th Session. Photo credits: Screenshot from UN's WebTV

“How do you explain or assess that Vietnam is ranked 175 out of 180 countries in the Reporters Sans Frontiers’ 2018 World Press Freedom Index?”

The question from Mr. Fathalla, a member of the UN Human Rights Committee, succinctly summed up Vietnam’s human rights situation, especially when it came to those rights involving the people’s freedom of expression.

Between March 11 and 12, 2019 and during their 125th session, the Human Rights Committee completed their review of Vietnam’s compliance and implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in Geneva, Switzerland.

Vietnam was 13 years overdue in submitting its third report for the review, which was due in August 2004. As a result, there was a 15-year-gap between the last review and this recent one.

Nevertheless, the questions from the Committee during the two-day-proceeding painted an accurate, but very worrying picture of the human rights situation in the country right now.

The Committee questioned specific contents of the new 2018 Cybersecurity Law and the 2016 Press Law regarding their possible violations of Article 19 of the ICCPR on freedom of expression.

There was scrutiny over the independence of the judiciary in Vietnam where all judges seemed to be members of the Vietnamese Communist Party.

Lawyers were disbarred for being human rights defenders themselves, or just by merely took on politically sensitive cases, such as those involved police brutality and torture committed by the state’s officials.

The most recently amended Penal Code has taken a step further in limiting and curtailing the practice of law when it requires lawyers to make mandatory reports on their clients in a few specific instances – for example when it involves a “national security” crime – or risk being prosecuted themselves.

At the same time, the penal code sections relating to “national security” are used almost exclusively against human rights defenders and political dissidents in Vietnam. As such, the mandatory report requirement seems to especially deny this group of people their right to a fair trial with competent legal assistance.

There were also concerns from the Committee over the fact that police brutality had become more prevalent in recent years due to impunity.

Prison conditions in general, and especially the treatment of human rights defenders in prison, were also brought up repeatedly during the proceeding, where the Committee rejected Vietnam’s attempt to brush off the issue by offering evidence of some handful visits to prisons by foreign embassies in recent years.

The Committee’s members instead referred to the UN’s Committee Against Torture’s recommendations after the review of Vietnam under the Convention in November 2018, where numerous alarming issues regarding the poor conditions in Vietnam’s prisons were addressed, such as the use of shackle and solitary confinement.

Vietnam was named as one of the world’s top executioners in 2016 by an Amnesty International’s report on the death penalty, after the Ministry of Public Security released some rare statistics in February 2017, stating that 429 prisoners were executed between August 8, 2013, and June 30, 2016, at an average rate of 147 executions per year.

At the review, facts involved the wrongful convictions involving two death-row inmates, Ho Duy Hai and Le Van Manh, were also addressed in details by members of the Committee.

The rights of indigenous people in Vietnam also took center after reports on their religious persecution and forced statelessness were submitted to the Committee in advance by NGOs working on these issues. Among them were Boat People SOS, Viet Nam Coalition Against Torture (VN-CAT), Council of Indigenous Peoples in Today’s Viet Nam (CIP-TVN), The Advocates for Human Rights and Tai Studies Center, Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation, and Hmong United for Justice.

The UN received close to thirty shadow reports from civil society organizations before the review, which included both independent groups and NGOs that have an affiliation with the Vietnamese government.

The Human Rights Committee is expected to issue their concluding observations in the coming months.

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Human Rights

EU Officials Raised Concern Over Worrying Human Rights Situation In Vietnam

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EU Commissioner for Trade Cecilia Malmström and representatives from independent Vietnamese CSOs. Photo Credits: Commissioner Malmström's official Twitter account.

“The human rights situation in Vietnam is worrying,” according to Commissioner for Trade of the European Union, Cecilia Malmström, after her meeting with independent Vietnamese civil society organizations on March 14, 2019.

When announcing the adoption of the EU-Vietnam trade and investment agreements (EV-FTA) in October 2018, Commissioner Malmström had hoped that such agreements would “help spread European high standards and create possibilities for in-depth discussions on human rights and the protection of citizens.”

However, during recent months, the human rights situation in Vietnam did not improve.

Instead, it became more concerning.

Commissioner Malmström is not the only EU official who has expressed concerns over the worrying trend of suppression on human rights in Vietnam in recent months.

32 MEPs from across the political spectrum of the EU Parliament signed a letter back in September 2018, calling on the EU to demand specific human rights improvements from Vietnam before the ratification of the EV-FTA.

EU Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy, Maya Kocijancic, also confirmed in an interview with Radio Free Asia earlier this month, that during the 8th EU-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue held in Brussels on March 4, 2019, the EU had addressed specific cases of prisoners of conscience with the Vietnamese delegation.

Ms. Kocijancic also stated during the same interview that the annual dialogue “raised a wide range of issues related to freedom  of expression, cybersecurity, the death penalty, environmental and labor rights, cooperation within the United Nations framework.”

As of today, The 88 Project’s database documented 21 Vietnamese activists are held in pre-trial detention. There are 218 other activists currently serving a prison sentence; among them, 30 are female activists and 51 indigenous political prisoners.

According to VOICE (Vietnamese Overseas Initiative for Conscience Empowerment), one of the organizations attended the meeting with Commissioner Malmström, the unconditional and in-country release of Vietnamese prisoners of conscience must be the first human rights benchmark before the ratification of the EV-FTA.

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Wife of Arbitrarily Detained Facebooker: He Only Exercised His Constitutional Rights

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Tran Thanh Phuong and his wife, Le Thi Khanh, with one of the couple's daughter. Photo courtesy: Le Thi Khanh.

The Prime Minister of Vietnam, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, announced today at a preparatory meeting for the DPRK-US summit in Hanoi that the country needs to “prove to the whole world that it is peaceful, friendly and orderly … as (the core of) its culture, a way of life of Vietnamese people.”

The price to pay for such an image could very well be the freedom of those who dare to exercise their constitutional rights like Le Thi Khanh’s husband, Tran Thanh Phuong.

For almost six months, Le Thi Khanh, a garment maker in Ho Chi Minh City, has not been able to see her husband who was taken away by the local authorities since September 1, 2018.

Her husband is Tran Thanh Phuong, a Facebooker who has been in police detention for attempting to participate in a protest during the celebration of Vietnam’s National Day.

As a pre-emptive strike, the police “invited” Phuong to come to the local station to talk to them, but they then detained him without a formal arrest warrant, according to his wife.

At first, Khanh could still bring her husband food and meet him once a day at the local police station of their ward.

But on September 7, 2018, when she went to see her husband, the police told her they had transferred him to a different location yet refused to tell her where.

Khanh then went to the District’s Police Department to look up her husband’s whereabouts.

There, the police asked her to provide them with her marriage certificate before allowing visitation. Once she did, they promised her that she would get to see him on October 10, 2018.

Came October 10, 2018, Khanh packed some food to bring to her husband with high hopes that she could see him, but again she was disappointed.

The District’s police told her they had transferred him to No. 4, Phan Dang Luu Street which is the detention center under the Ho Chi Minh City Police Department, The Security Investigative Unit.

She immediately went to No. 4 Detention Center and was able to confirm that her husband was, indeed, held there.

Since then, she was only able to send him food every two months, but the authorities have yet to allow visitation.

She also has no idea what crimes her husband has been charged with because no one would tell her anything.

But Khanh was aware that Phuong was using his Facebook to look up information relating to Vietnam’s Constitution, as well as the exercise of their constitutional rights.

“My husband often read different groups’ postings on Facebook about disseminating our Constitution. He said we should read to gain our own knowledge so that when the police arrest us, we could know what rights we have and demand them,” Khanh told us.

Not being to know how her husband has been doing was an ordeal which Khanh went through in the past six months while trying to make end’s meet to raise the couple’s two daughters, entirely on her own now.

Tran Thanh Phuong has effectively been held incommunicado by various police forces in Ho Chi Minh City since September 7, 2018.

Khanh also told us that on October 15, 2010, the police even tried to summon her 13-year-old daughter to come in for questioning on the 19th regarding their investigation of the case.

She, of course, refused to comply with the outrageous request.

Phuong was alleged to be a member of a dissident group calls “Constitution” (Hiến pháp).

The group’s members have been arrested and detained arbitrarily by the Vietnamese authorities from September 2018 to date.

While the members acknowledged that they participated in the June 10, 2018’s mass protest against the then draft bills of the cybersecurity and the Special Economic Zones law, all information surrounding their activities – including those coming from the authorities – could not openly show their criminal liability.

One of them has been arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to five-year-imprisonment.

In that case, the defendant – Huynh Truong Ca – was alleged by the government to have live-streamed 40 clips on Facebook criticizing the government, the Communist Party, and calling on people to exercise their constitutional right: participate in demonstrations.

Such conduct, however, not only could not constitute the legal merits of a crime but also was a person’s political opinion which international human rights law protects.

Notwithstanding international law standards, the government of Vietnam often violates even its constitution while suppressing people during protests and arresting them.

The 2013 Constitution guarantees all Vietnamese people the right to assemble and to demonstrate peacefully.

The absence of a valid constitutional protection mechanism, however, has allowed the government’s unlawful activities continued.

Crowd control’s measures in Vietnam were recently broadcasted internationally when the Hanoi’s security police detained and questioned the Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump impersonators duo ahead of the DRPK-US summit.

The police’s intention to avoid any remote possibility of people gathering during the event was apparent when they demanded the two’s itinerary while in Hanoi and had since surveilled their movements.

Spontaneous gatherings in public are frown upon by the VCP because its leaders could not and would not risk the chance – however slim – of having a protest breaks out, especially during a highly observed event like the Kim-Trump peace summit.

Since September 2018 to date, The Vietnamese has documented over a dozen incidents of arbitrary arrest and detention. More than half of them involved the members of the Constitution group where Tran Thanh Phuong is a member.

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