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.
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.
Death Penalty Remains “State Secret” In Vietnam
A representative from the Ministry of Justice of Vietnam said during the country’s third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) held on January 22, 2019, in Geneva, Switzerland, that “data concerning the death penalty are related to other legal regulations involving the protection of state secrets in our country. In practice, after taking many points of view from society and other reasons into consideration, Vietnam will not publicize the data concerning the death penalty.”
However, later during the same speech, the speaker seemed to have contradicted her earlier statement when she said that executions in Vietnam are “very public and would be conducted according to the requirements under the Code of Criminal Procedures.”
She did not offer any further explanation as to why the executions are public, but the data concerning the number of executions remains a state secret?
None of the information concerning the execution of inmates is mentioned in the categories listed as “state secrets” in either the Ordinance on Protecting State Secret (link in Vietnamese) or the more recent Law on Protecting State Secret (link in Vietnamese).
However, with the vague language in both of these laws, coupled with the full range of authority given to various government ministries and departments in determining what would be “state secret,” any matter of public concerns could be classified as a “secret” in Vietnam without any further explanation.
In February 2017, the Ministry of Public Security (the national police force) – for the first time – released a report, stating that between 2011-2016, Vietnam was holding 1,134 people on death row and that from 2013-2016, 429 people were executed by lethal injection.
The name of the lethal drugs, however, was not disclosed.
To date, death-row inmates are continued to be executed by unknown drugs and undisclosed procedures.
The MPS’ report in 2017 was also the first and last of its kind.
While Vietnam agreed, since the last UPR cycle in 2014, to push for reforms towards greater transparency around the issue of the death penalty, the answer from its Ministry of Justice on Tuesday seemed to suggest that the public would continue to be kept in the dark.
The representative from Vietnam’s delegate also claimed that the death penalty is only applied to the most serious crimes under the definition of Article 6(2) of the ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights).
This is not quite correct.
There are at least four crimes subjected to the death penalty under the 2015 Penal Code, that do not fall under Article 6(2): Article 109 (subversion against the State), Article 110 (espionage), Article 353 (embezzlement), and Article 354 (receiving bribes).
Among them, Article 109 (formerly 79) had been used almost exclusively against political dissidents during the past decades.
Vietnam also maintains the death penalty for a handful of drugs-related crime in direct violation of Article 6, ICCPR.
Vietnam scored 35 points out of 100 on the 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index reported by Transparency International. In a country where the majority of its citizens perceived corruption had plagued all levels of government, keeping information concerning the death penalty a secret from the people could raise suspicion about possible wrongdoing.
On a Facebook’s post by attorney and dissident Le Cong Dinh earlier today regarding the Vietnamese government’s position on the transparency of the death penalty, people did not hesitate to state that they believed if a death-row inmate agreed to pay a bribe, they could escape execution.
Five Facts About Vietnam’s Death Sentences and Executions in 2018
The death penalty in Vietnam is classified as “state secret.” But from time to time, bits and pieces of information from the government do surface, giving the public some glimpses on the statistics and the details of the practice in the country.
Amnesty International previously reported that Vietnam was among the top Five recorded executors in the world in 2016. The worrying trend continues well into 2018.
1. Vietnam sentenced more people to death in 2018 compares to 2017 and executed people, on average, every week
On November 13, 2018, the government reported to the National Assembly the status of sentence implementation in the year 2018 and stated that there was a “dramatic increase from 2017, with 122 more (cases).” The government’s report also confirmed that 85 executions took place in the country this year which means that on average, Vietnam executed at least one person per week.
Although Vietnam had reduced the number of offenses subjected to the death penalty in the past decade, eliminating a total of 15 offenses which carry capital punishment, the number of people sentenced to death actually doubled during the same time period. There were 1,134 inmates sentenced to death between July 1, 2011, and June 30, 2016, according to the Ministry of Public Security’s Report on executions carried out in the previous five years dated January 4, 2017.
2. The name of the lethal drugs used for executions in Vietnam is still UNKNOWN
The method of execution in the country was changed from the firing squad to lethal injection in September 2011 when the government issued Decree 82/2011/NĐ-CP (link in Vietnamese). However, in 2013, Decree 47/2013/NĐ-CP (link in Vietnamese) was issued and effectively taking out the names of the lethal drugs previously stated in Decree 82 because Vietnam could not import them from the European Union due to an export ban.
The government, since then, has stopped providing the names of the drugs and how they are being used in executions although Vietnam has accepted the recommendations from New Zealand and Switzerland during its last Universal Periodic Review (UPR) cycle in 2014 to be more transparent on the death penalty issue.
3. The right to a fair trial is severely infringed with no effective legal representation
On August 28, 2018, the People’s Court in Ho Chi Minh City sentenced a 34-year-old South African man to death for drug trafficking. According to the indictment, in early June 2016, Tyron Coetzee was arrested at Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh city after the authorities found 1.46 kilogram of cocaine in his bag. The state assigned Coetzee an attorney, but the person did not speak English and could only meet with him once, on the day of his trial.
Testimonies from other families of death row inmates repeatedly stated that their attorneys often faced with obstacles when trying to meet with the prisoners.
In the case of farmer Dang Van Hien, both the trial and appellate courts failed to apply possible mitigating factors for extenuating circumstances, effectively affirming his death sentence in July 2018.
4. The UN Committee Against Torture (UN-CAT) raised concerns over the mistreatment of prisoners on death row in its initial report on Vietnam in 2018
In particular, the CAT Committee is concerned about the “reports of the physical and psychological suffering of persons sentenced to the death penalty as a result of their particularly harsh conditions of detention that may amount to torture or ill-treatment, including solitary confinement in unventilated cells; inadequate food and drink; being shackled round-the-clock; being subjected to physical abuse; and who often commit suicide and develop psychological disorders as a result.”
The Committee recommended that Vietnam allows visits of death-row inmates by international organizations, especially the International Committee of the Red Cross so that conditions of detention centers could be independently observed and monitored.
5. Vietnam continues to violate Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
Vietnam currently imposed the death penalty on 18 offenses with more than half of them being non-violent crimes and drug-related offenses.
Article 6(2) of the ICCPR – which Vietnam has been a party since 1982 – states: “In countries which have not abolished the death penalty, sentence of death may be imposed only for the most serious crimes.”
There are, however, at least four offenses in the 2015 amended Penal Code carrying the death penalty in direct violation of Article 6 of the ICCPR:
- Attempting to overthrow the people’s administration (Article 109)
- Espionage (Article 110)
- Embezzling property (Article 353)
- Receiving bribes (Article 354)
Article 109 is the new version of Article 79 in the 1999 Penal Code, which has often been used against political dissident in the country, including entrepreneur Tran Huynh Duy Thuc and attorney Nguyen Van Dai.
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