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Death Penalty

Wrongfully Convicted Ho Duy Hai Languishes on Death Row

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Ms. Nguyen Thi Loan, death-row inmate Ho Duy Hai's mother petitioned again for his innocence in December 2017. Photo credits: Unknown social media source.

During these last days of 2017, be it rain or shine, people in Ha Noi, Vietnam, could often spot a frail, weary middle-aged woman holding up a sign “Do Not Kill My Innocent Son, Ho Duy Hai” near the government’s headquarters.

She is death-row inmate Ho Duy Hai’s mother, Nguyen Thi Loan.

Since Hai’s conviction in 2008, Ms. Loan has begun her own crusade to petition for his release. In the past few years, she especially traveled more often to Ha Noi where the central government is located to raise awareness of Hai’s case because time might be running out for him.

Ho Duy Hai’s execution was halted once in December 2014 due to public outcry, but recently, local authorities had expressed their impatience for having to continue keeping him on death row.

On December 7, 2017, at a meeting of the People’s Committee of Long An Province, Dinh Van Sang – Prosecutorial General of the People’s Procuracy of Long An Province had suggested that the execution of Ho Duy Hai should be carried out as soon as possible because “the imprisonment of this kind (of prisoners) would be too burdensome (for the government).”

Ho Duy Hai and his sister in a family picture. Photo credits: Kienthuc.net.

It often goes without exception in the majority of jurisdiction, that one shall not be convicted based solely on his or her confessions.

The criminal law principle of corpus delicti requires a higher burden of evidence from the prosecution and provides that a defendant’s confession – on its own – is not enough for a conviction.

Having credible physical evidence from the prosecution then becomes the determining factor in convincing a jury or a judge, that the government has satisfied the burden of proof and that they have proved the defendant was, in fact, guilty of the crime charged.

Vietnam follows this general rule in prosecuting criminal cases.

Yet, such a rule only exists in law books and legal codes.

In practice, people not only got convicted solely on their confessions but very often, they confessed because they were beaten and tortured by the investigating officers.

Ho Duy Hai was one of them.

In March 2008, Hai – a then 23-year-old recent graduate from Long An Province located in the Mekong Delta south of Sai Gon – was arrested, charged and convicted of double homicide and sentenced to death.

The only evidence used to convict him was practically his confession, which he later recanted and revealed that he was forced to confess by the police during his detention.

The prosecution not only did not offer any credible physical evidence, they even committed basic prosecutorial mistakes.

The time of death was never established for the two victims, making it impossible for the defendant to come up with an alibi.

The murder weapons were “lost” by the forensic team and other items were later “purchased” a local market by witnesses who vouched for their similarities if compared to the real ones.

None of the fingerprints found at the crime scene matched Ho Duy Hai’s.

A special team of legal experts set up by the Vietnamese National Assembly and led by the current Commissioner of the National Assembly’s Judiciary Committee – Le Thi Nga – visited Hai in the end of December 2014 after his family successfully used social media campaign to halt his execution (which was set to be carried out earlier that month).

The report signed by Ms. Le Thi Nga in February 2015, found that Hai’s case was riddled with irregularities and prosecutorial mistakes and that the prosecution did not present sufficient evidence to support a conviction. It also called for a trial of cassation for Hai.

2018 will be three years since the government’s legal experts concluded that Hai’s case deserved a review and ten years since Hai’s life as a free man ceased to exist, yet it seems as if the legal obstacles have stacked even higher against him.

Hai remains in prison, his youthful years waste away with each day spent on death row.

With the assistance of a local artist, Thinh Nguyen, Ms. Loan and other parents of wrongfully convicted death-row inmates appeared in several video clips to raise public awareness on the reality of forced confessions and prosecutorial irregularities in Vietnam’s criminal cases.

And even though the videos are well-received, it seems as if these efforts are to no avail, at least for the time being.

His mother has also written thousands of petitions pleading the government to not kill her innocent son, and she would talk to anyone – be it the personnel from foreign embassies or just about any passerby on the streets – whoever would spare a few minutes listening to her telling the story of Hai’s wrongful conviction.

Her hope is that one day, not only the people will stop and listen to her, but so will government officials and that they will take up Hai’s case and declare him a free man.

Death Penalty

Ho Duy Hai’s Case Reaffirmed, Sentenced to Death Again

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Ho Duy Hai with his sister before his conviction. Photo courtesy: Ho Duy Hai's family

On May 8, 2020, around 15:30 Hanoi’s time, the 17 members-committee of the Supreme People’s Court of Vietnam reaffirmed Ho Duy Hai’s lower courts’ decisions and again sentenced him to death. They have also denied the petition for a cassation trial from the Supreme People’s Procuracy of Vietnam.

Hai’s death sentence has been affirmed

In its statement denying the petition from the Judicial Committee of the Supreme People’s Procuracy of Vietnam, the committee even though agreed there were prosecutorial mistakes. Still, its members believed those mistakes did not change the character of the case. Accordingly, the Judicial Committee of the highest court believed that the lower courts have duly convicted Hai and sentenced him to death. Therefore, they affirmed the lower courts’ decisions, effectively sentenced Hai to death again.

Ho Duy Hai’s family and his lawyer after the decision was announced. Photo courtesy: Nguyen Xuan Dien

The Judicial Committee of the Supreme People’s Court believed these prosecutorial mistakes did not change the character of the case. Yet, if we look at them from an international law perspective, they might have violated the defendant’s right to a fair trial. The errors admitted by the government were among the followings:

  • No murder weapons. The alleged “weapons” were purchased at a market by the police.
  • Hai’s DNA, fingerprints were not found at the crime scene.
  • Hai also was convicted of ‘robbery’ in the same case, but the police could not find any of the items alleged to be robbed by him.
  • No eyewitness identified Hai at the crime scene.

Technically, there was no physical evidence. The only evidence in the case was Hai’s confession. Under Vietnam’s laws, the confession could not be the sole evidence used to convict defendants.

Would Hai’s life be saved under Vietnam’s laws?

The cassation trial is the highest court’s proceeding in a case in Vietnam. But Hai still has three options (link is in Vietnamese) under Vietnam’s laws to save his life.

  1. The National Assembly could intervene and request the Judicial Committee of the Supreme People’s Court to conduct a meeting to review the cassation trial’s decision.
  2. The Head of the Supreme People’s Procuracy of Vietnam petitioned, or the Chief Justice of the Supreme People’s Court requested the Judicial Committee to review their decision in the cassation trial.
  3. The President of Vietnam pardons the death sentence.

The cassation trial of Ho Duy Hai during the past three days has created a lot of public discussion in Vietnam. People have discussed the case because many of them saw the injustice of Ho Duy Hai’s judgment during the last twelve years.

Representative Le Thanh Van at the National Assembly. Photo courtesy: Bao Moi

One of the National Assembly’s members, Mr. Le Thanh Van, a representative Ca Mau province, has also expressed his opinion on his Facebook account. Mr. Le said that he would do all that he could to push for Vietnam’s Congress to intervene with this case. He stated that the decision of the cassation trial is unconvincing and not persuasive enough.

Numerous attorneys and journalists also expressed on social media that the decision of the cassation trial’s decision was not fair. They believed that Ho Duy Hai should have been released. One of them was Huy Duc, the author of the book The Winning Side (Ben Thang Cuoc).

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Death Penalty

Ho Duy Hai’s Cassation Trial

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Ho Duy Hai. Photo courtesy: Ho Duy Hai's family.

On May 6, 2020, a cassation trial started for Ho Duy Hai – a death-row inmate in Vietnam. His mother has been requesting the courts to review his wrongfully convicted case for the past decade. In one of our previous articles, we detailed the facts of his wrongful conviction in 2008.

This trial is expected to last for three days at the Supreme People’s Court of Vietnam in Hanoi which is the highest court of the country. It is led by Mr. Nguyen Hoa Binh, the current Chief Justice of Vietnam.

Below is the summary of the first day of Hai’s cassation trial.

What is a cassation trial?

The Supreme People’s Court of Vietnam on May 6, 2020. Photo courtesy: Justice Newspaper

The cassation trial is a special court proceeding in Vietnam to review the lower court’s decisions. There must be a petition asking the highest court for a review because of irregularities or illegal conduct in the lower court’s proceedings.

This proceeding does not review the facts of the case. Rather, the review only focuses on whether there have been prosecutorial mistakes which influence the decision of the lower courts.

The decision from a cassation trial could result in six different ways:

  1. Affirm the lower courts’ decisions and deny the petition for a cassation trial;
  2. Void the lower courts’ decisions and order a new investigation of the case;
  3. Void the lower courts’ decisions and order a new trial;
  4. Void the lower courts’ decisions and halt the case;
  5. Amend the lower courts’ decisions, and
  6. Halt the cassation trial.

What is the stand of the Supreme People’s Procuracy of Vietnam on this case?

In Ho Duy Hai’s case, after receiving a request for a petition in his case from Hai’s family, the Supreme People’s Procuracy of Vietnam petitioned for a cassation trial at the end of 2019. At the cassation trial on May 6, 2020, the Supreme People’s Procuracy of Vietnam stated its decision to request this trial as follows:

Accordingly, as reported by Justice newspaper in Vietnam, the decisions from both the trial court and appellate court in Ho Duy Hai’s case were inconsistent with the objectivity of the case; the gathering and examining of evidence and data were not completed, and the case contained a lot of conflicting issues but was not clarified. The Supreme People’s Procuracy of Vietnam requested “the highest court to void both the trial and appellate decisions in Ho Duy Hai’s case for ‘robbery’ and ‘murder’, as well as issue an order for a new investigation.”

Ho Duy Hai’s Lawyer, Tran Hong Phong, is the first attorney to attend a cassation trial in the history of Vietnam

Attorney Tran Hong Phong. Photo courtesy: VNExpress

Cassation trial is a review court, not for arguing facts or procedures. In Vietnam, cassation trial does not allow lawyers for the defendant. However, from Tuoi Tre newspaper, the highest court has made an exception in this case to invite Ho Duy Hai’s attorney to attend.

Attorney Tran Hong Phong is the first lawyer for a defendant to attend the cassation trial. From Mr. Phong, the court invited him because it saw him as a person with related responsibility in the case as he got some evidence. The evidence raised by Mr. Phong and Hai’s family included the testimony of an eyewitness. The eyewitness had told the police at the time that he saw a young man at the crime scene, but that person was not Ho Duy Hai. The eyewitness did not know Ho Duy Hai at the time and he did not recognize the person he saw was Hai.

However, after the morning session of the first day of the cassation trial, Mr. Phong was asked to not come to the other sessions of the case. The court will continue the case with discussions of the court and the other governmental entities.

Ho Duy Hai’s family believes justice will come when Hai is exonerated

Hai’s younger sister, Ho Thi Thu Thuy, stated: “I desperately hope that this trial will happen in a transparent, equal manner and that it will practice justice. If this trial exonerates my older brother Hai, then I will believe justice is still present in Vietnam. If it concludes like the other previous decisions to deem him guilty, then Vietnam does not have justice and the law in Vietnam would not worth our respect to upholding.”

Some pictures during the first day of Ho Duy Hai’s cassation trial

Ho Duy Hai’s family, including his aunt, his mother, and his younger sister and attorney Tran Hong Phong
Chief Justice Nguyen Hoa Binh began the trial. Photo courtesy: Vietnam News Agency
Member of the Supreme People’s Procuracy of Vietnam. Vietnam News Agency

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Death Penalty

After Decade of Petitions, Vietnam to Re-consider Case of Death Row Inmate Ho Duy Hai

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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.

Ho Duy Hai during his trial on December 1, 2008. Photo: Hoang Phuong / Thanh Nien.

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.

Ms. Le Thi Nga, National Assembly representative, and deputy head of the NA’s Judicial Committee from 2007-2016. She is currently head of the Judicial Committee. Photo: Hoang Long / Vietbao

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.”

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