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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.

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Vietnamese Police Continue Questioning People Over Facebook Activities

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Phan Chi Toan at the police station. Photo courtesy: Vietnamnet.

The police force in Ben Tre Province, Vietnam seemed to have been quite busy in the last few months, going after people’s postings on Facebook.

In January 2019, their Domestic Security Bureau took a university student in and questioned him over his Facebook’s usage, including whether he had joined a group calls “Liking BBC Vietnamese” (Thích BBC Tiếng Việt) – which the police classified as “politically hostile.”

On February 13, 2019, Vietnamnet newspaper reported that Ben Tre provincial police conducted an investigation and interrogated a 35-year-old man, Phan Chi Toan, about his Facebook’s activities under the username “Phan Rio.”

Police alleged that the Facebook account calls Phan Rio was conducting “subversion against the people’s government.”

How did he do it according to the authorities?

He did so by joining numerous groups, allegedly “politically hostile” towards the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) and the State, posting, sharing, and commenting on contents that incited demonstrations, as well as propagating to defame the policies, guidelines, and directions of the VCP and the government.

The police had not formally charged Toan with a crime but did declare that they would proceed with the case according to the regular procedures.

The same Vietnamnet’s article further mentioned that the People’s Committee of Mo Cay Bac District, also in Ben Tre Province, had fined a 55-year-old man – Dang Tri Thuc – under Government’s Decree 174/2013/ND-CP, Article 64, Section 4, for using his Facebook account to incite public demonstration in December 2018.

Accordingly, Thuc, a driver, was accused of using the live-stream feature on Facebook to make video clips, calling on others to protest on a few major road intersections on December 22 and 28. He allegedly admitted guilt, confessed and promised he would not repeat the offense, so the authorities fined him with 15M VND or approximately 650 USD.

Decree 174/2013/ND-CP, Article 64: Violations against regulations on websites/ news websites

Section 4. A fine ranging from VND 30,000,000 to VND 50,000,000 shall be imposed for any of the following violations:

a) Propagating information against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam; sabotaging the bloc of great national unity at a degree of severity which is still not liable to criminal prosecutions;

b) Propagating information with the aims of inciting war of aggression, causing hatred between ethnic groups or people of countries, inciting violence or propagating reactionary thought at a degree of severity which is still not liable to criminal prosecutions;

c) Distorting history, denying the revolutionary achievements or offending the nation, people or national heroes at a degree of severity which is still not liable to criminal prosecutions.

While the right to demonstrate is constitutionally protected in Vietnam, the government had routinely violated this right by applying their Decree 38/2005/NĐ-CP – to regulate “public gatherings – during protests to arrest the participants.

Since the nationwide mass protests broke out in June 2018 against the draft bills on the cybersecurity law and the development of three special economic zones, the security police have continued to track down those who had participated and made arrests in different cities and provinces.

The family of a woman names Doan Thi Hong from Binh Thuan Province has recently made a public plea on social media, alleging that Hong was taken into police custody by a group of plainclothes police on September 2, 2018. She was a participant in the same June 2018 protest mentioned above.

Although she has a young child under 36-month-old at the time of the arrest, which under Vietnam’s laws is a factor to consider against pre-trial detention, her sister claimed that Hong had been arbitrarily kept incommunicado since September of last year.

According to her sister, Hong was not a dissident and only exercised her right to protest that one time.

It seems that the police’s recent investigations targetting Facebook’s activities and usage in Vietnam also focus primarily on the average users and not necessarily the more well-known bloggers and dissidents.

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Vietnamese Police Questioned University Student Over Facebook Postings

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Tran Ngoc Phuc at the police station. Photo courtesy: Dong Khoi online newspaper

On February 1, 2019, the Domestic Security Bureau of Ben Tre Province interviewed Tran Ngoc Phuc, a 21-year-old student of Ton Duc Thang University in Ho Chi Minh City at their station.

Dong Khoi online newspaper, a publication of the VCP’s Provincial Committee in Ben Tre, published the story on the same day.

According to the article, the police accused Phuc, a resident of Tan Phu Commune, Chau Thanh District, Ben Tre Province, of using his personal account to propagandizing against the Vietnamese Communist Party and the State.

Namely, Phuc was using Facebook under the name “Ngoc Phuc” to join several “politically hostile” groups. Among them, was “The South of Vietnam” (Miền Nam Việt Nam), Fanclub of Saigon Capital (Đô thành Sài Gòn Fanclub), and  “Liking BBC Vietnamese” (Thích BBC Vietnamese).

Phuc also allegedly admitted to the police that he was indeed the Facebooker Ngoc Phuc and that he had posted, shared, and commented on specific contents.

The police had deemed these contents as materials which “propagandized, sabotaged the thoughts, distorted the direction, objectives, and policy of the VCP, the laws of the State and distorted (the image of) the leader Ho Chi Minh.”

Formal charges against Phuc had not been filed, but the police indicated that they would continue to build the case and follow the regular legal procedures in this case.

During the first month since the new Cybersecurity Law took effect in Vietnam on January 1, 2019, there were several reports that the police had questioned and detained some Facebookers.

Rights groups, online campaigners, bloggers, activists, and dissidents continuously criticize the new law for further curtailing freedom of speech and shrinking the online civic space in Vietnam.

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Former Political Prisoner, Truong Duy Nhat, Disappeared In Thailand After Seeking Refugee Status With UN

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Truong Duy Nhat. Photo courtesy: Teu Blog

Last Friday, January 25, 2019, former political prisoner, Truong Duy Nhat, was last seen at the office of the UN HCR – The Refugee Agency in Bangkok, Thailand.

Nhat was there to register himself as an asylum seeker after leaving Vietnam earlier in the month.

According to his family and friends, no one had heard from him since last Saturday, and they could not contact him.

Nhat has left Vietnam for Thailand for about 21 days, said his family.

The family was able to confirm that Nhat was not held by Thailand’s IDC (Immigration Detention Center). They also obtained further information today that Thai authorities, up to this point, did not arrest Nhat either.

Nhat’s phone number in Thailand is not turned off, but no one answered the calls. His wife and daughter are worried about his safety and well-being as they are still unable to get in touch with him.

Truong Duy Nhat was sentenced to two-year-imprisonment in 2014 under Article 258 of the 1999 Penal Code. Nhat was arrested in May 2013 and held in detention until his trial.

The government alleged some of his blog entries on the Blog “Another Point of View” (Một Góc Nhìn Khác) was “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe the interest of the state”.

His blog was indeed critical of the government and the leaders of the Vietnamese Communist Party.

One of the entries published in April 2013 was calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and the VCP’s General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong for their perceived political and economic mismanagement.

After his release in 2015, Nhat continued with his blogging and resided in Da Nang, Vietnam.

Nhat’s wife is still in Vietnam, but his daughter is studying in Vancouver, Canada. They are asking members of the public to come forward with any useful information regarding his whereabouts.

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