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Vietnam: Court Sentenced Doctor For Involuntary Manslaughter, Ignited Public Outrage

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Dr. Hoang Cong Luong at his first trial in 2018. Photo courtesy: vietbao.vn

On January 30, 2019, The People’s Court of Hoa Binh Province found Dr. Hoang Cong Luong guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced him to 42-month-imprisonment.

The verdict caused an outcry across different sectors in Vietnam’s society, especially among other doctors who did not agree with the court’s reasoning.

They believed that Dr. Luong did not breach his duty of care as a medical doctor.

Dr. Luong was a former nephrologist at Hoa Binh General Hospital who was charged with involuntary manslaughter for failing to check the RO (reverse osmosis) water before initiating a hemodialysis treatment in May 2017, causing 18 patients to suffer anaphylactic-like symptoms – eight of whom later died as a result.

A total of seven people were put on trial this year for “involuntary manslaughter” under Article 98 and “negligence of responsibility, causing serious consequences” under Article 285 of the 1999 Penal Code.

The case was initially tried in May 2018 where Dr. Luong was charged with Article 285. The court dismissed the case and returned the file to the prosecution for re-investigation in June 2018.

The prosecution came back and formally filed charges against Dr. Luong for involuntary manslaughter in December 2018. The second trial commenced in January 2019.

According to the trial court’s verdict of yesterday, Dr. Luong was guilty because he failed to wait for the documentation confirming the water’s safety before initiating the dialysis. Instead, Dr. Luong relied on the verbal confirmation of the staff in charge.

The court’s reasoning also put Dr. Luong in the position of a gatekeeper, which many doctors disagreed and argued that would have required nephrologists to be more than medical service providers.

According to these Vietnamese doctors, the failure to wait for the appropriate documentation was only an administrative mistake, not enough to constitute his criminal culpability.

They also argued that other doctors would have used the same method as Dr. Luong because having the documentation – in reality – does not make any difference compares to the verbal confirmation of the staff before starting the dialysis. Delaying the dialysis to wait for the documentation could also cost the patients their lives.

According to the community of doctors standing with Dr. Luong, when faced with such circumstances, whether he had waited for the documentation or went ahead with a verbal confirmation, nothing could have changed the fact that the water was contaminated and Luong could never detect such contamination.

The evidence at trial also established that the water in question was contaminated due to improper cleaning performed by the maintenance staff.

One of the witnesses, Nguyen Huu Dung, the Head of the Dialysis Department of Bach Mai Hospital in Hanoi, testified that the responsibility to maintain the water safety was one of the maintenance department, not the treating physician.

Regardless of the testimony from the experts and the doctors’ community standards, the court still decided Dr. Luong had committed involuntary manslaughter.

Throughout the process, not only the public and the doctors’ community stood by Dr. Luong, but all of the victims’ families have also pleaded with the court to exonerate him. Their action constituted one of the conditions under Vietnam’s laws which could exempt Dr. Luong from criminal liability under Article 29, Penal Code of 2015.

While the new penal code only took effect on January 1, 2018, which was after the alleged medical malpractice had happened, Vietnamese laws allowed the retroactive application of any section that could have benefited the accused.

For his defense, Dr. Luong should have been able to use any section involving the extenuating circumstances, and other exemptions from criminal liability under the recently amended 2015 Penal Code, to defend his action. That did not happen.

The public outrage, in this case, started since its commencement where the director of the hospital, Truong Quy Duong, was first exempt from prosecution and was able to leave the country to go abroad to Canada back in 2018.

Due to public pressure and Dr. Luong’s lawyers’ argument, he was later charged with negligence and had to return to stand in the second trial.

Other doctors had pointed out that the absence of a national standard for dialysis procedures should make the Ministry of Health liable in this case as well.

The case also revealed more unanswered questions regarding the maintenance of the RO water system being used in dialysis at Hoa Binh General Hospital.

As the director of that hospital, should the responsibility of overseeing the maintenance and operation of all departments belongs to Truong Quy Duong, and that he should have been ultimately held liable for the death of the patients?

The case of Dr. Hoang Cong Luong has become one of the most controversial criminal cases in recent years, underlining issues that challenge Vietnam’s legal system today and in years to come.

People questioned the neutrality and fairness of the court and the role of the prosecution in this case. Was the prosecution’s decision to file charges against Dr. Luong for involuntary manslaughter done according to laws?

Not only there is a lacking of the standard of care for doctors in medical malpractice cases in the country, but also, there are other criminal procedures’ issues that urgently need reform, such as evidence admissibility and the standard for expert witnesses’ testimony.

Press Release

Statement On The Upcoming Trial Of Three members Of The Independent Journalists Association Of Vietnam

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Le Huu Minh Tuan (left), Nguyen Tuong Thuy (middle), Pham Chi Dung (right). Photo Courtesy: SBTN.

January 4, 2021

We, the undersigned media organizations, condemn the arrest, detention, and the upcoming trial of the three journalists, Pham Chi Dung, Nguyen Tuong Thuy, and Le Huu Minh Tuan. The Vietnamese government has charged them with Section 2, Article 117, of the 2015 Penal Code (revised in 2017) for “making, storing, spreading information, materials, items that contain distorted information about the people’s government.” The trial is expected to commence on January 5, 2021, at the People’s Court of Ho Chi Minh City.

The three journalists mentioned above have been active members of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam (IJAVN). Mr. Pham Chi Dung is the president, Mr. Nguyen Tuong Thuy is the vice-president, and Mr. Le Huu Minh Tuan is the editor. All three have also been journalists for the Vietnam Time newspaper, a media organization of the IJAVN.

These journalists are being persecuted and brought to trial because they have exercised their rights of free speech, free press, and the freedom of assembly. These are the fundamental human rights that both Vietnam’s Constitution and international law wholeheartedly recognized. The Vietnamese regime may use whichever propaganda to rationalize its decision, but it cannot change the facts and the reality of this case. The truth is that in Vietnam, the current regime has put itself in the same position as the feudal monarchies of the past and is sentencing people in a literacy inquisition.

We declare that we stand with Pham Chi Dung, Nguyen Tuong Thuy, Le Huu Minh Tuan, and the IJAVN to build a free media in Vietnam. We demand the Vietnamese government immediately and unconditionally release the three journalists.

Jointly signed,

Luat Khoa Magazine

The Vietnamese Magazine

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Press Release

Statement On The Recent Arrest of Pham Doan Trang

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Reporters Without Borders (RSF) awarded Pham Doan Trang RSF Prize for Impact in 2019. Photo courtesy: RSF.

On October 6, 2020 at 23:30, the Vietnamese authorities arrested Pham Doan Trang, a current member of our editorial board, in Ho Chi Minh City. She was charged with “conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” under Article 88 of the 1999 Penal Code, and “making, storing, spreading information, materials, items for the purpose of opposing the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” under Article 117 of the 2015 Penal Code.

The Vietnamese Magazine, strongly condemn this blatant violation of human rights committed by the Vietnamese authorities. Pham Doan Trang is a highly-respected journalist who has diligently expanded the political and legal information for the masses in Vietnam, encouraging people to practice the universal values of freedom and democracy that are stated clearly in Vietnam’s Constitution and which the government has also supported in many of the international treaties it has signed. A journalist should be allowed to report and a writer must be able to publish her books in every corner of this world. Journalism is not a crime and journalists should not be treated as criminals. The suppression of these basic human rights should be treated as a crime.

We demand the Vietnamese government release journalist Pham Doan Trang unconditionally and immediately. In the meantime, from now until she is released, we demand that the authorities uphold her rights and legal interests, including her right not to be tortured, right to have legal representation, right to meet her family, right to privacy, right to medical assistance, and the right to have a full and complete access to all the files related to her case.

We also encourage our readers and those who care about Vietnam and Vietnamese citizens to raise objections against this arrest and join us in our demand to have Pham Doan Trang released immediately. Please join us in continuing her fight for freedom and in reporting, publishing, translating, and raising our voices against injustice whenever and wherever possible.

Tran Quynh Vi – editor-in-chief

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COVID-19: Why Vietnam’s Second Positive Wave Might Not Be Entirely Negative

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Vietnamese people quickly wear masks as protective gears. Photo courtesy: The Vietnamese

After nearly 100 days of zero new confirmed cases in the local community, within the last 10 days, there has been a jump in the number of patients contracting the virus in various cities in Vietnam.

According to official figures, in the six months from January 23  to July 25, there were only 140 local cases, the rest were imported patients, and zero fatalities. Since July 25, in a period of less than two weeks, more than 300 new local cases have been confirmed with 10 deaths so far.

Da Nang, the third largest city of the country, has become the new epicenter of the pandemic. 

While this new surge seems to have caught the entire nation by surprise, in reality it is a scenario that was long written on the wall, with the pandemic having never really ceased to rock countries after it first appeared on the world stage in January 2020 (the first reported case outside of China). And though it has created a new scare among citizens, it is a positive and necessary alarm.

Empty street in Hoi An city in August 2020. Photo Courtesy: The Vietnamese

To the moon and back

More than three months without domestic positive cases had put the whole nation in a complacent mode. Even the health care staff at hospitals had lowered their guard. Most of the initial cases from July 25 were linked to patients and their caretaker relatives in Da Nang hospitals.

Since then, the virus has quickly spread throughout the community and to other cities.

Fortunately, it does not take long for the whole system to restart and quickly return  to crisis mode. Da Nang was almost immediately put under partial lockdown, with thorough contact tracing being carried out for every new case. People who had been in close contact with new positive cases were put under quarantine. Medical teams and personnel from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh were sent to the epicenter to help relieve the pressure and the wearing of face masks in public in big cities became mandatory again. 

There is reason to be optimistic about the ability of the country to contain the new wave despite it having caught everyone off guard.

Local wet market in Hoi An City. Photo courtesy: The Vietnamese

Through the looking glass of Taiwan

With the initial success in containing Covid-19, there has been an ongoing debate among citizens on whether Vietnam’s authoritarian system is better equipped than other democratic societies to cope with a pandemic. However, focusing on governing systems might miss some critical points.

Comparing Vietnam with Taiwan, an exemplary success in the fight against this pandemic, may provide some useful insights.

At first glance, the two countries could not be more different. One is a communist state, the other one of the most vibrant democratic systems in the world. At closer look, Vietnam and Taiwan share some vital similarities in the fight against Covid-19. 

They both are next to China, the origin of the pandemic. Both governments, and especially their people, have the same distrust of the Chinese Communist Party, hence the high alert mode from the very beginning, long before other countries took this infectious disease seriously. They also share painful experiences from the SARS pandemic in 2003, which also originated from China. With those scars still fresh in mind, going through this crisis is like bathing in the same river twice. They knew how and where to swim.

The culture and society also played an important role here. 

Both countries are still dominated by Confucious-like ideals about the need for a harmonious society where collectivism trumps individualism. In the case of major crises like a pandemic, this kind of mindset helps glue the community together faster, quickly putting everyone into the same “for the common good” mode. 

This particular pandemic, Covid-19, in which the elderly are the most vulnerable, also highlights one important aspect: how societies treat and value their aged populations.

In Vietnam, like Taiwan, most families have at least one senior member living under the same roof. Therefore, most people, even the younger generations, despite being in low-risk groups, still voluntarily took extra precautions to protect their family members.

Opportunities lie in the midst of every crisis, as the old saying goes. And there are many opportunities for a change-demanding society like Vietnam.

While the resurgence has shattered the illusion of exceptionalism, deflating many hardcore aficionados of the authoritarian system, it has also inflated the constant alert mindset, which is a life-and-death difference in the fight against most infectious diseases.

The health crisis also puts the whole governing system in the spotlight, pushing the need for greater transparency and accountability.

With the virus always seeming to have a head start, the authorities have had no other option than to constantly play catch-up. Around-the-clock updates and publicized data and numbers are now the new normal. Government officials are forced to focus on containing the spread of the pandemic. Even when the pandemic is over, it is hard to imagine returning to “the old normal”. 

The virus has also created space for a newborn civil society. With the government’s resources stretched thin and vastly inadequate, citizens and volunteer groups have organized themselves for a wide range of mutual-support activities, from donating basic necessities to setting up coordinating teams to offer transportation for supplies and people in need. Again, when the pandemic is over, citizens who have trained themselves in this new normal will not be easily caged again. Instead, they will demand a greater place on the stage in building a common and better society for themselves.

A deadly pandemic is obviously not an ideal scenario to push for a positive change in any society. But as in any crisis, a good response brings along good reforms. 

There are reasons to be optimistic about the emergence of some form of positive change after the country has gone through this extraordinary period. 

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