Wrongful convictions almost always share a few disturbingly similar characteristics in Vietnam. First, they mostly happened in rural areas. And second, the majority of the people involved, be it the victims, witnesses, or the alleged perpetrators – often are poor, and some even have no or very limited education.
In any case, the defendants quickly found themselves victims of police brutality, and thus were coerced to confess. Most of the time, no effective legal counsel would be available. Worse of, it would be certain that the court will convict with little or close to zero credible evidence and hastily sentence them to the maximum terms. There have been many cases where defendants were sentenced to death based on almost nothing but the very confession which the police had beaten them into giving up.
The need for criminal justice reform in the country is therefore real and urgent. And the death penalty cases below, featuring the stories of three young men in their twenties, all convicted, sentenced, and incarcerated to await their executions during the past decade, would convince even the toughest critics.
Ho Duy Hai:
Hai was a 23-year-old recent college graduate, eagerly waiting to start his new life when he got convicted of double homicide and robbery in 2008.
Social media in Vietnam came to know of Hai’s case when his younger sister, Thuy, created a Facebook group in November 2014 to raise awareness about his conviction and plead for his life. At that time, Hai’s family had just received notice from the Long An Province Police Department that they would execute him on December 5, 2014.
Devastated by the news, his family then desperately turned to social media, the dissidents, and various independent human rights groups to save Hai’s life, and Vietnamese people began to learn about one of the most peculiar death penalty cases in Vietnam. Due to pressure from both the public in Vietnam and international organizations, on December 4, 2014, the then President Truong Tan Sang personally ordered a halt of his execution – which would have been carried out the next day.
Despite the fact that a special team of jurists and legislative members was set up to investigate wrongful convictions in 2014 and 2015, and that the Deputy Commissioner of the National Assembly’s Judiciary Committee at the time – Le Thi Nga – already reported to Congress there were serious violations committed by the police and prosecution in Hai’s case, he had yet been granted a review and remained incarcerated.
By next March, it would have been ten years since the day his life as a free man was abruptly ended. And as flimsy as they are, the so-called evidence that sent Hai to the firing squad still soundly stand.
The case dated back to the night of January 14, 2008, when two young women were killed at the Cau Voi Post Office in Thu Thua District, Long An Province. According to the case file, the victims’ throats were cut, and one of them received blow injuries to the head while another one was almost decapitated. Some 1,400,000 VND (approximately 70 USD), mobile phones, and pieces of jewelry were allegedly taken from the scene by the perpetrator.
On March 22, 2008, Hai was arrested and tried for the double-murder even when none of the fingerprints left at the scene matches his, no physical evidence to tie him to the case, and there were testimonies that other men were seen at the crime scene during the night of the murders.
Even more disastrous, according to the indictment, one of the prosecution’s witnesses, Nguyen Van Thu, later purchased a knife at a local market and gave it to the police, vowing that it would have matched the size and shape of the knife from the scene. That was enough for the police to conclude that they had sufficiently determined the murder weapon. What happened next was more bizarre, this very “purchased” weapon was indeed admitted into evidence to be parts of the case file that convicted Ho Duy Hai of double-murder and sentenced him to death in December 2008.
During their visitation, Hai told his mother and aunt that he was beaten up by the police and tortured during his pre-trial detention to confess to the crimes. Also according to his family, Hai’s appeal process began immediately after the conviction, but the court system, again and again, denied review.
With his family, including his mother, aunt, and younger sister, on his side, Hai continues on what seems to be an indefinite journey to fight for justice.
Le Van Manh:
Approximately one year after the campaign to save Ho Duy Hai appeared on Vietnam’s social media, in October 2015, people again learned of the facts in yet another irregular wrongful death penalty case.
On October 16, 2015, the family of death-row inmate Le Van Manh received a written notice from the People Court of Thanh Hoa Province, informing them about procedures to pick up and bury his body after execution, which was scheduled for October 26, 2015. Le Van Manh was convicted of robbery, rape, and murder of a 14-year old girl in July 2005.
On October 25, 2015, Amnesty International issued a statement on behalf of Le Van Manh, urging the Vietnamese government to spare his life and investigate allegations that he was tortured in police custody. Like Ho Duy Hai, Manh’s execution was halt due to domestic and international pressure. And also like Hai, Manh continued to be incarcerated since then, with not much progress in his plea for justice.
From 2005-2008, Le Van Manh had undergone a total of seven court hearings, including three trials, three appeals, and one cassation trial. In all of his court hearings, Manh vehemently denied all of the charges and retracted his earlier confessions, alleging that he had to confess after being beaten by both the police officers investigating his case and his cellmates who were acting under police’s instructions.
According to the case’s official records, the victim, Hoang Thi Loan, whose date of birth was August 15, 1991, was raped and murdered in Yen Thinh Ward, Yen Dinh District, Thanh Hoa Province in March 2005. The authorities believed that Loan went to the bank of the Cau Chay river within the Yen Thinh Ward, to use the bathroom on March 21, 2005. By nightfall, her family realized that she had disappeared. The family organized a search for her but to no avail. By the 13:00 hour on March 22, 2005, Loan’s body turned up at the bank of Cau Chay river within Xuan Minh Ward, Tho Xuan District, also in Thanh Hoa Province.
On March 30, 2005, the Thanh Hoa Province’s Forensics Office concluded that Hoang Thi Loan died from strangulation with signs of water asphyxia and that the victim was raped before she was killed.
On April 20, 2005, Le Van Manh, who was 23-year old at the time, was arrested pursuant to a temporary arrest warrant issued by the investigative police unit of Dong Nai Province for an entirely different matter, suspected robbery and attempting to flee criminal custody, earlier that month.
However, according to the criminal complaint, just three days later, by April 23, 2005, a confession letter, claimed to be written by Le Van Manh while in police detention addressing to his father, had surfaced, admitting guilt to the rape and murder of Hoang Thi Loan. The police happened to be in time to confiscate this letter and used it as evidence of Manh’s guilt. The criminal complaint further showed that investigation relied on the testimony of a 9-year old child – who had limited education and was interviewed by the police without parental permission – for leads.
As in Ho Duy Hai’s case, there was no physical evidence to tie Manh to the alleged rape and murder. The only evidence presented by the prosecution was Manh’s confession letter, which he already retracted. Nevertheless, Le Van Manh was charged with the rape and murder of Hoang Thi Loan, tried, and sentenced to death.
Nguyen Van Chuong:
Nguyen Van Chuong’s official case file reveals that it could probably be the strongest one among these three to demonstrate how police brutality affected criminal investigation in Vietnam because not only the suspects but witnesses also fell victims to such cruel practice.
The only evidence used to convict Chuong was his and his co-defendants’ confessions. These confessions, again, were alleged by the defendants that the police obtained them through torture.
His parents recalled how Chuong had described the police would handcuff him so that he was hanging and only the tips of his toes would touch the floor, then they would beat him repeatedly until he confessed.
Court’s dockets confirmed that Chuong and other defendants had all petitioned for review after the appellate court confirmed their convictions in November 2008. From prison, on April 7, 2009, Chuong sent his mother a t-shirt where he had used bamboo toothpicks to sew on his plea of innocence.
Not only the defendants alleged that they were tortured by the police during the investigation to confess, but Chuong’s alibi witnesses had also come forward and alleged they were physically abused by the authorities.
According to the police’s investigation file, in the night of July 14, 2007, around the 21:00 hour, a high ranking police officer, Nguyen Van Sinh, of the Hai An District, Hai Phong City, was attacked by knives and suffered severe injuries. Officer Sinh died at 8:00 A.M. the next morning from the wounds he received during the attack.
By August 3, 2007, police arrested Nguyen Van Chuong, who was born in 1983 and a resident of Trung Tuyen village, Binh Dan Ward, Kim Thanh District, Hai Duong Province. At the time of his arrest, Chuong was a factory worker in Hai Phong, married, and had no criminal records. Chuong was also the owner of Thien Than coffee shop in Hai An District, Hai Phong City. Together with Chuong, two other men, Do Van Hoang and Vu Toan Trung, were also arrested.
On August 4, 2007, Chuong’s 20-year-old younger brother – Nguyen Trong Doan – obtained written declarations from various witnesses who swore under oath that they had met with Chuong at his hometown, in Kim Thanh District of Hai Duong City at the time Officer Sinh was attacked in Hai Phong City, which is some 40 km away. In other words, Chuong had an alibi and witnesses to support it.
But instead of investigating the validity of his alibi, the police then arrested Chuong’s brother, Doan, alleging that Doan was manipulating evidence and witnesses to help Chuong conceal his crimes. Ironically, Doan was arrested at the police station in Hai Phong City when he came to provide the police with testimonies from witnesses who were with his brother during the night of the alleged crime.
One of Chuong’s alibi witnesses was Tran Quang Tuat, who later told Tien Phong newspaper in November 2007 that the police had intimidated him into changing his testimony about Chuong’s whereabouts during the night Officer Sinh got attacked.
Another person, Trinh Xuan Truong, petitioned to the People’s Supreme Procuracy Office on September 10, 2013 and claimed that the police had beaten him up, burnt him with cigarettes, threatened to arrest him, and ordered him to change his testimony, from being with Chuong in a different city during the night of the attack to did not see Chuong that night.
By January 27, 2008, the Hai Phong City Police Department finalized their investigation and concluded in their criminal complaint that Chuong, along with two co-conspirators, Trung and Hoang, had confessed to using a knife to rob officer Sinh for money to buy heroin, resulting in his death from knife injuries the morning after.
On June 12, 2008, Chuong and co-defendants were tried for murder and he was given the death penalty while the other two received life sentence and 20-year imprisonment respectively. It is worth to notice that Trung, the defendant who received the 20-year imprisonment, was the grandson of a woman who received an outstanding medal from the regime in the past, thus the law allows him a lighter sentence.
Nguyen Trong Doan, Chuong’s younger brother was also sentenced to two years imprisonment for “concealing criminals” because he was trying to bring forward Chuong’s alibi witnesses.
Like Ho Duy Hai and Le Van Manh, Chuong has been incarcerated since his arrest, and his execution could happen anytime. And also like the other two families, Chuong’s parents, especially his father, became his strongest and most outspoken advocates on Facebook. During a teleconference with us in early 2016, Chuong’s dad, Nguyen Truong Chinh, disclosed that he had left their home to come to Hanoi to petition for a review of Chuong’s case. With all of their valuables sold to pay for Chuong’s legal case and appeals, his father had lived among land-grabs victims’ community and worked as a motorbiker for hire to earn a meager salary.
Yet, the future looks bleak when courts refused to grant review, and legal options are running out for Ho Duy Hai, Le Van Manh, Nguyen Van Chuong, as well as other death-row mates, unless major reforms regarding criminal procedures take place in Vietnam. Until then and there, their lives could only depend on other people’s mercy and how much and how often the international community exerted pressure on the Vietnamese government.
After Decade of Petitions, Vietnam to Re-consider Case of Death Row Inmate Ho Duy Hai
After more than 10 years of petitioning the Vietnamese government, Nguyen Thi Loan (pictured above) says a huge weight has been lifted off her shoulders. Her son, Ho Duy Hai, who had been found guilty of murder in 2008 and was sitting on Vietnam’s death row for eleven years, now has another chance at life.
On November 30, 2019, the country’s highest prosecutor’s office (the Supreme People’s Procuracy, or SPP) announced that “Ho Duy Hai’s case suffered from serious procedural shortcomings that affected the quality of evidence gathered” to prosecute him.
As such, the SPP has requested that Vietnam’s Supreme Court toss out all previous rulings, including the original 2008 conviction by a Long An provincial court, as well as a 2009 appellate judgment by the Ho Chi Minh City Supreme Court of Appeals which upheld the death sentence. The SPP’s latest request also supersedes its own October 2011 refusal to halt the sentence after repeated petitions from Loan.
Ho Duy Hai’s 2008 case involves the murder of two sisters, Nguyen Thi Thu Van, 22, and Nguyen Thi Anh Hong, 24, who were killed at Cau Voi Post Office in Long An province, which borders Ho Chi Minh City to the southwest. The women, who both lived and worked at the post office, were found at the foot of a set of stairs, two meters apart, with their necks slit and their heads showing signs of blunt force trauma. The robbery and double murders occurred on the evening of January 14, 2008, about 4.5 kilometers from Hai’s house. It was not until two months later that Hai was implicated. He had known the two employees and could not provide an alibi the night of the murders. Police subsequently arrested him and charged him with murder on March 21, 2008.
Hai was only 23 when he was sentenced to death on December 1, 2008, but both he and his mother have consistently proclaimed his innocence. Though Hai could not remember clearly what he was doing the night of the murders, he claimed police beat and tortured him into falsely confessing.
Other cited shortcomings in the investigation included a lack of fingerprints at the scene of the crime to corroborate Hai’s “confession”, an inability to confirm the murder weapon(s), purchased items used to replace “lost” evidence at the scene of the crime, inconsistent witness testimonies, and a lack of time of death for the two victims to corroborate Hai being at the scene, among others.
For more than a decade, Hai’s mother petitioned all levels of government to intercede in her son’s case, even holding banners in front of the General Secretary, Prime Minister, and the President’s offices. She also enlisted the help of activists, dissidents, and human rights groups on social media to spread awareness. In December 2014, when Hai was only a day away from lethal injection, the Long An provincial court decided to temporarily suspend his sentence due to uproar over the nagging inconsistences in Hai’s case.
The case became so high-profile that National Assembly (NA) representative Le Thi Nga, who was the deputy head of the NA’s Judicial Committee at the time, became involved. She personally investigated the case’s inconsistencies, confirming that “there were serious violations committed by the police and prosecution in Hai’s case.” Her tenacity, attention to detail, and personal care for Hai’s mother has earned her praise on social media, who have held her up as a model NA representative.
If the Vietnamese Supreme Court accepts this latest SPP request, then there are two possible outcomes for Hai: his case will either be suspended and all charges dropped or he will be re-investigated and re-tried.
If the Supreme Court decides the former, then Hai will walk away from death row a free man. If it decides the latter, then Hai’s case is essentially back to square-one, as if he had just been arrested. Hai would remain in police custody (i.e. virtually imprisoned, as is Vietnamese custom for those who have been arrested but not yet charged with a crime). The murders for which he was convicted would be re-investigated by police, after which the Long An prosecutor’s office would decide whether to charge Hai with a crime. If they do, then the trial, sentencing, and appeals process would repeat itself. If they don’t, then Hai has yet another path to freedom.
Regardless of the outcome, Hai’s mother is all gratitude for what has been achieved so far: “I want to thank every soul, both inside and outside the country, for caring so deeply for Hai. I will be grateful to you all for the rest of my life, for supporting my family and walking together with us on this long path.”
Wrongful Death Penalty Cases And The Families That The Inmates Left Behind
Mrs. Loan began to cry softly as she spoke to me one afternoon in late March, when I called to ask if there were any updates on her son Ho Duy Hai, who is sitting on death row in Long An province on a wrongful conviction.
“He is so young, and yet already has suffered over a decade of imprisonment,” she told me over the phone. “I want him to come back home and live a normal life. I want him to get married, and have a child. Sometimes, I just really wish to have a paternal grandchild and that both of my children could live with me like in those happy days before.”
I have been in contact with the Hai family for the past four years, since I first joined the community of Vietnamese bloggers and activists calling for the suspension of Hai’s execution in December 2014, after then President Truong Tan Sang issued an order to stop his execution. It was then that I began studying his case a bit more and learned that the evidence submitted for his conviction was invalid, and quite frankly, illegal.
For example, the local authorities wanted to ensure Hai was found guilty and so they purchased a knife at a market and marked it as “similar” to the weapon that they alleged Hai had used in committing the robbery and murder of two women. And with such “evidence,” Hai was convicted and sentenced to death in 2008, when he was a recent college graduate, and just 23-years-old.
Throughout these years, I have also gotten closer to two more families of Vietnamese who have been handed wrongful death penalties. Those include the families of Nguyen Van Chuong and Le Van Manh. These two men also were convicted and sentenced to death in their 20s with no evidence and following alleged torture by police officers. These three groups of parents meet every month in Hanoi and go together to petition the government to overturn the wrongful conviction of their sons. Each month, if they saved enough money to buy supplies, they will also visit their sons in prison. All of the men were convicted and have been kept behind bars for more than a decade.
Yet, visiting their sons is not quite an easy task because of the financial strain on these families. The words of Le Van Manh’s mother – Mrs. Viet – broke my heart during our most recent telephone call, also in March this year. “If I manage to earn enough money, then I will go to see my son, but making money to support my family is quite difficult given my age,” she told me. “So for some months, I have not been able to see Manh.”
My colleague based in Vietnam told me that catching fish and other aquatic creatures at the river near Mrs. Viet’s house was the main source of her income. Yet, her determination to fight against his unjust conviction has been so powerful.
I asked her if she was able to talk about his case when she visited him in jail. “The officers don’t like me to talk about it, but I tell Manh anyways,” she said. “Manh needs hope and the information that people have not forgotten him and are fighting for him gives him hope.”
Mr. Chinh, Nguyen Van Chuong’s father, also has the same fighting spirit. He sends me documents and updates me on Facebook about his son’s case. This year, Mr. Chinh shared with me that the Supreme People’s Procuracy Office in Hanoi contacted him and invited him to go see them. The office told Mr. Chinh that they had sent a request for a trial for cassation in Nguyen Van Chuong’s case. However, the Supreme People’s Court of Vietnam denied such a request without giving any apparent reason. The Procuracy Office used that excuse and the denial to tell Mr. Chinh to stop contacting them. However, that was not a legally sound argument. First, the office recognized that the case needed to be reviewed. Second, the law allows the office to continue sending their request, even after the denial. In fact, the Procuracy Office should continue to submit their requests for Nguyen Van Chuong and not tell his father to forget about the case.
The cost for discussing the details of their cases with their family members during visitations has been quite severe for Nguyen Van Chuong and Le Van Manh. Both of them claimed that they were shackled 24 hours a day a few times. Nguyen Van Chuong’s father also told me that Chuong was being beaten up by other inmates in his prison and being forced to sign a letter for the local authorities confessing to the murder he was convicted of. Yet, the families and the inmates did not yield in front of these pressures and they kept on petitioning for a review of their cases.
Different than Ho Duy Hai, both Chuong and Manh already had children before their conviction. But their wives could not withstand the pressure of having a spouse that was given a death penalty conviction and so they left their children to be raised by Chuong’s and Manh’s parents. The responsibility to raise the children while still trying to exonerate the two men greatly added to the burden of the two families, who are already straining to survive. The grandparents are elderly and cannot find jobs that provide a fair and reasonable income. But at the same time, they have to provide support for a lot of people in their families.
In Vietnam, there is no organization that really focuses on the issue of the anti-death penalty or that assists people with wrongful convictions. And even though I work on this issue, my non-profit organization is not recognized by the Vietnamese government and our work is classified as “reactionary” conduct. More than that, none of the death row inmates would be allowed visitations by an organization or non-family persons, not even the International Committee of the Red Cross. The inmates are shut off from society entirely and can not have any contact with people and organizations that care about their cases. In fact, visitations by independent organizations working on behalf of inmates, including those sitting on death row, was a request made by the Committee Against Torture in its concluding observations for Vietnam in 2018.
As the person who has brought these three cases before the different international law reviews, such as the Committee Against Torture and the Universal Periodic Review of Vietnam, where specific inquiries were asked about them, it is very frustrating for me that international law – such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) – had not been used for the benefit of the wrongfully-accused inmates. The Human Rights Committee (a body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the ICCPR) sadly acknowledged the fact that the covenant could not actually be implemented by the people of Vietnam in its third periodic report on Vietnam early in 2019.
The families of Hai, Chuong, and Manh don’t really have support from the public or civil society organizations that operate in Vietnam. They are almost alone during their monthly petitioning to the authorities in Hanoi. They need to find some financial resources to buy supplies to visit their sons each month. More than that, no one actually assists them with funds to buy paper and pay postage fees to send their monthly petitions. And yet, none of the parents will call for financial support from the public for their families when I spoke to them. Instead, they all told me that they just want a review of the cases in an independent court of law.
Their determination and belief in justice and rule of law always encourages and inspires me to continue to bring their cases to more people, which I will do until the day that these cases are fairly reviewed and rightfully settled.
Death-Row Inmate Dang Van Hien May Get A Second Chance At Life
On February 18, 2019, the defense attorneys for Dang Van Hien – a farmer in Dak Nong Province who was sentenced to death in January 2018 – received a letter from the People’s Supreme Court in Hanoi, asking them to supplement further information in support of Hien’s request for a trial by cassation.
The letter is a good sign. It indicates that Hien’s case may get a review of both the law and the facts by the highest court in Vietnam.
It gives him hopes that his life could be saved.
Dang Van Hien killed three men and injured 13 others during a physical altercation between him and the workers of Long Son Investment & Commercial Company in October 2016.
The call to save Hien, whose death sentence was confirmed by an appellate court in Ho Chi Minh City last July, surprisingly, received a significant amount of public sympathy in Vietnam.
Right after the appellate court’s decision was announced, in five days, 3,500 people signed an online petition, asking the President of Vietnam to spare his life.
On July 17, 2018, the Presidential Office demanded the Chief Justice of the Supreme People’s Court, the Chief Procurator of the Supreme People’s Procuracy Office, and the Ministry of Public Security to review and report back the details of the case.
The public seemed to side with Hien and agreed that while he committed murder, there were extenuating circumstances that should save his life from execution.
Long Son had been involved in a bitter land dispute for almost a decade with the farmers living in Hien’s village, Village 1535 in Quang Truc Ward, Tuy Duc District, a remote area deep into the forest of Dak Nong Province.
Dang Van Hien’s case was an agonizing tale of a farmer who started from scratch, trying to build a life on a piece of land which representing the hard-earned money that he and his wife had worked so hard for.
He was a member of the Nung ethnic minority in Vietnam who had very limited education.
But Hien believed in working hard and to this day, believed in the legal system.
He tried to petition to the central government to resolve the dispute between him and Long Son company for almost ten years.
He was not the instigator of the deadly event happened on October 23, 2016.
He earnestly believed that he was protecting his land and his family when they were attacked by the company’s workers, with bulldozers and self-made weaponry.
He turned himself into the police, believing that the law would be fair to him. He and his family tried to compensate the families of the victims for their losses.
Those were the extenuating circumstances that 3,500 Vietnamese people believed should spare Dang Van Hien’s life.
But their sympathy could have also come from the fact that land disputes have become one of the most pressing social and political problems in Vietnam during the past three decades, ever since the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) started to implement their economic reforms under the Doi Moi policy in the late 1980s.
The growth of both the private sector and quasi-government enterprises crashed head-on with landowners across the country in many development projects throughout the years.
On top of that, the legal framework involving land rights in Vietnam is extremely complicated, yet still could not resolve the most important issue confronting the authorities.
How to balance the communist concept that all lands supposedly belong to the people and still be able to justify the granting of the right to occupy and use the land to preferably private companies over a regular person?
In recent years, story after story continuously exposed incidents of local government in Vietnam giving the conglomerates a more favored treatment when granting them land use rights in real estate development projects.
The victims of the wrongful, forced removals under the Thu Thiem Project in Ho Chi Minh City had spent over 20 years in petitioning their cases to no avail.
Just last month, Sun Group – one of the largest real estate development companies in Vietnam – faced an accusation from environmental activists that they are building a resort in the heart of the country’s famous national park, Tam Dao.
Land-grabbing has become the reality that the majority of Vietnamese people acknowledges. When conflicts happen, it would be somewhat natural for them to act more sympathetic towards the land-lost victims.
There is always the possibility that anyone in Vietnam could be the next victims of land-grabbing activities, as seen in the case of Loc Hung Vegetable Garden this year, which may also explain this sympathetic reaction from the public as seen in Hien’s case.
In Hien’s case, their sympathy may get him a second chance at life.
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