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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

Luat Khoa and The Vietnamese’s Press Release on the Indictment of Three Members of The Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam (IJAVN)’s

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As media organizations, Luat Khoa and The Vietnamese magazines vehemently denounce the three recent arrests of the three members of IJAVN: Le Huu Minh Tuan (detained on June 12, 2020), Nguyen Tuong Thuy (detained on May 23, 2020, and Pham Chi Dung (detained on November 21, 2019).

All of these three journalists were charged with the crime “publish, store, and disseminate or propagandize information, documentation, and products against the Social Republic of Vietnam” (Article 117 of Vietnam’s current Penal Code). This penal code has already been viewed as a blatant violation of people’s freedom of speech and free press by many human rights organizations. 

IJAVN – together with running its Vietnam Thoi Bao newspaper – is a regular civil society organization formed under the right to associate, and it sets to implement the right for a free press and promote an independent and decent media for Vietnam.

Luat Khoa and The Vietnamese magazines share and support the values in which the IJAVN pursues. 

As journalists, we ultimately care for the safety of our other colleagues. We consider the reality of a government trying to silence any journalist to be an imminent threat to us and anyone who practices free speech.

Silencing journalists is also a violation of the right to read free and independent media of the people.

We have realized that the call for the government of Vietnam to release immediately and unconditionally these three journalists of IJAVN would be unrealistic in the situation of Vietnam. However, that action is the only righteous conduct that the Vietnamese government could act right now, and therefore, we call on them to immediately do so.

We also call on all of the journalists, the activists, the public, the international organizations, and the foreign governments to jointly monitor and pressure the Vietnamese authorities to release the three journalists, Pham Chi Dung, Nguyen Tuong Thuy, and Le Huu Minh Tuan; and to call on the government to respect the Vietnamese people’s right for a free press and the freedom to form associations.

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To contact us, please email editor@luatkhoa.org

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Vietnam Reports Zero COVID-19 Deaths – Drawing Praise and Scrutiny

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Banner by Le Duc Hiep
Banner - created by artist Le Duc Hiep - to encourage people fighting the coronavirus in Vietnam.

With the government’s new decree against “fake news,” the official COVID-19 numbers are being questioned

Photo credits: Screenshot from Ministry of Health, April 23, 2020

While the world death toll due to COVID-19 has topped 190,000 cases and many countries around the world have reported an alarming number of fatalities — from 50 deaths in Thailand to more than 50,000 in the US — Vietnam, along with neighboring countries, Laos and Cambodia, has reported a total of zero deaths.

Although the Vietnamese government has recorded 268 COVID cases and shown strong public health initiatives, including a handwashing song that went viral, nevertheless, the reported zero deaths and relatively low cases are questionable, especially coming from an authoritarian country with a record of bending the truth.

A “Textbook Approach”

Vietnam does deserve credit for having made an early response, even before the country saw its first case. According to The Diplomat, the Ministry of Health issued urgent messages on outbreak prevention to government agencies on January 16 and to hospitals and clinics nationwide on January 21. The country recorded its first cases on January 23 in Ho Chi Minh City, just two days before the Tet Lunar New Year holiday.

Todd Pollack, an infectious disease specialist at Harvard Medical School who works with a Harvard initiative in Hanoi, Health Advancement in Vietnam (HAIVN), told Reuters that Vietnam learned its lesson after the SARS outbreak in 2003 and adopted a textbook approach in its early response strategy. 

On March 16, Vietnam began compulsory testing and a 14-day quarantine for persons in virus-hit areas as well as some arrivals from overseas. Some of the quarantine camps were set up at military bases. According to Reuters, the numbers quarantined reached at least 44,955.

While democratic countries, such as Taiwan, South Korea, and the United States, have mostly enforced home quarantines, authoritarian countries like China and Vietnam have resorted to quarantine camps with questionable practices.

Were the Government’s Actions Enough?

The Vietnamese government’s actions have been praised as a low-cost model for developing countries. While wealthier nations like Taiwan and South Korea have been able to perform mass testing, Vietnam’s method of contact tracing and quarantining is relatively less expensive. 

Still, despite the country’s preventative efforts, Vietnam’s international border was still porous until March 25, when the country canceled international flights. As new data has revealed that one-fourth of carriers don’t exhibit symptoms, it is highly possible that asymptomatic carriers brought the virus to Vietnam and “super spreaders” exponentially passed it around in the same way the virus spread and  inflicted deaths in almost every country around the world – except for authoritarian countries.

North Korea has also reported no deaths. Western officials suspect the reported numbers coming out of China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, and Indonesia.According to a U.S.-intelligence report confirmed by Bloomberg, China’s public tally of COVID-19 infections and deaths is false.

In more developed Asian countries like Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore, which also share the recent memory of the 2009 H1N1 and 2003 SARS pandemics, they also reacted to COVID-19 with strong public health measures. But despite these countries’ greater wealth, resources and expertise (as well as the lack of a border with China), they have more COVID-19 cases and deaths than Vietnam: South Korea 240 deaths, 10,702 cases; Singapore 12 deaths, 11,718 cases; Taiwan 6 deaths, 427 cases.

In South Korea, the fatality rate among confirmed cases is 2.2 percent; the United States is 4.3 percent and in Italy (with a large elderly population), the fatality rate is 12.8 percent. Compared to the rest of the world, Vietnam’s zero death rate among 268 cases is statistically significant.

To further repress the sharing of information, Vietnam began fining people for spreading “fake news” with a new decree drafted in February. This decree (the official number is 15/2020/NĐ-CP) updates the cybersecurity law passed last year with more stringent measures, including penalties against anyone sharing banned publications or using social media to share false, untruthful, distorted, or slanderous information.

“This decree provides yet another potent weapon in the Vietnamese authorities’ arsenal of online repression,” Tanya O’Carroll, director of Amnesty International Tech, told Reuters. “It contains a raft of provisions that blatantly violate Vietnam’s international human rights obligations”.

Hundreds of fines have already been handed out, with fines ranging from 10-20 million dong ($426-$853), equivalent to around three to six months’ basic salary in Vietnam, Reuters reports. In March, a woman in Ha Tinh was fined for a Facebook post in which she incorrectly said the coronavirus had spread to her local community.

Vietnam Under Lockdown

Even if the international community were to believe that Vietnam’s reporting of zero COVID-19 deaths is accurate, it begs the question: Why did the government mandate a lockdown, put the economy in dire straits, continue to expend a great deal of resources quarantining thousands of people and encourage people to maintain a social distance?

For instance, why not follow Sweden’s policy, which has steered clear of mandating a lockdown and only advised people to avoid non-essential activities. Four U.S. states also have no lockdown.

Some observers believe that the Vietnamese government can earn a great public image by touting zero deaths and indeed, the Vietnamese government has been praising itself in state-owned media and winning acclaim internationally, including in NPR and The World Economic Forum.

Furthermore, the zero death count helps to shore up a belief among Vietnamese citizens that the authoritarian system is better able than democratic countries to handle crises. Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc has described Vietnam’s actions to control the virus as the “spring general offensive of 2020,” referring to the 1968 Tet Offensive by Communist forces during the Vietnam-American war.

“Autocrats love a crisis,” writes Michael Abramowitz and Arch Puddington of Freedom House in a Los Angeles Times op-ed. The writers describe Turkey, Venezuela and Russia using various crises to entrench their power, such as the 2004 school bombing in Russia and the failed coups in Turkey and Venezuela. It’s clear Vietnam has been taking notes from other authoritarian powers as it has exploited the health crisis to strengthen its power and take away freedom of speech from citizens. 

As the rest of the world continues tallying up its death count, Vietnam is now being closely watched by international observers to see whether the country will be able to control the spread of the virus – or suppress the truth – in the long run.

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Land Rights

Tensions Mount in Aftermath of Attack on Dong Tam Village

Leader Le Dinh Kinh killed, wife tortured, and 22 others charged, as civil society demands answers from government

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As details and testimonies slowly emerge from Dong Tam after a surprise government raid early the morning of January 9, tensions between officials and civil society activists continue to mount as the two groups fight to clarify events that led to the deaths of 84-year-old village leader Le Dinh Kinh and three police officers, as well as the arrest of more than 30 villagers.

Compounding tensions is the fact that Vietnam is a one-party authoritarian state in which all official news, press, and media outlets are controlled by a single communist party. Citizen-journalists make ample use of social media to counter the systemic bias, as the general population struggles to establish the facts.

State media announced yesterday that 22 individuals have been charged: 20 for murder, including two of Kinh’s sons, Le Dinh Chuc and Le Dinh Cong, as well as 2 others for obstruction of officials. Murder is among the most serious charges of the Vietnamese penal code, with punishment ranging up to and including the death penalty.

The clash in Dong Tam was the culmination of a land dispute that had been simmering for years over private farmland earmarked for a military airport (Mieu Mon). Experts state that land disputes in Vietnam have become increasingly common, at Loc Hung garden in Ho Chi Minh City most recently, due to the ambiguous laws that the ostensibly “communist” country has enacted regarding land ownership.

According to villager testimonies, around 3 AM the morning of January 9, 2020, approximately 3,000 officers from the police, riot, and armed forces carrying clubs, sticks, guns, shields, and tear gas grenades poured into Dong Tam village (My Duc suburban district, Hanoi), targeting village leader Le Dinh Kinh’s house.

Collecting eyewitness accounts, citizen-journalist and activist Pham Doan Trang explained: “as violent skirmishes broke out, police used an explosive charge to blow a hole into village leader Kinh’s house, all while firing bullets and tear gas. Other officers tightly sealed off all the paths and alleyways in the village and used German shepherds to hunt down ‘culprits’. The villagers responded with rocks and Molotov cocktails. Police completely collapsed the roof of Le Dinh Kinh’s house and more than 30 members of his extended family were taken away.”

Trang reports that the Dong Tam area is currently under complete lockdown and no independent journalists have been allowed in, noting state media outlets simultaneously began reporting the same story January 9, citing a single source: Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security. The brief statement from the ministry stated that a number of officers ‘sacrificed themselves’ in the line of duty, while one ‘hostile culprit’ died.

It was not until January 10 that state media identified the “hostile culprit” as village leader Le Dinh Kinh himself, who was accused of leading a mob of villagers to “obstruct officials” who were working on constructing a wall delineating Mieu Mon Airport. Officials did not explain why this work was being done at four in the morning, nor why 3000 officers were present in the village rather than closer to the Mieu Mon work site, a few kilometers away. Officials handed over Kinh’s body to villagers the same day (January 10).

Security footage showing numerous riot police marching through Dong Tam, early on the morning of January 9. Photo: Trinh Ba Tu

Luong Tam Quang, deputy head of the Ministry of Public Security, explained at a press conference January 14 that Kinh was shot because he was “holding a grenade” and posed a threat to security forces. Quang, however, confirmed that the Ministry of Public Security did not have an arrest warrant for anyone when police stormed Kinh’s private residence.

Kinh’s wife, Du Thi Thanh, told land rights activist Trinh Ba Tu that Kinh was shot right in front of her, twice in the head, once in the heart, and once in the left foot. A viral video of Kinh’s body on social media showed a single bullet hole near his heart, and an unexplained long surgical scar down his abdomen.

Kinh’s funeral was held January 13, but the area of Dong Tam remained under high security, with the internet cut. Little to no footage of the funeral is available, and supporters were largely prevented from attending.

Public outpouring of support for Kinh has been swift on social media, with many seeing him as a exemplary moral leader who consistently fought for the weak. In his lifetime, Kinh was a peasant farmer, a revolutionary soldier who had fought against the Americans, a Communist Party member at 20, head of police in his village, and both party secretary and chairman of the village’s Party committee in the 1980s.

That the Vietnamese government has killed a model Party member has intellectuals commenting on the inherent symbolism, stating Kinh’s murder represented the communist regime “digging its own grave”.

Kinh’s wife, Du Thi Thanh, herself suffered harsh mistreatment from the authorities, and in a surreptitiously recorded video that has spread on social media, she details how police slapped and kicked her repeatedly to force her to falsely confess to using grenades and petrol bombs.

Kinh’s wife, Du Thi Thanh, explains how police repeatedly slapped and kicked her to force her to sign a false confession.

Her son Le Dinh Cong, adopted daughter Bui Thi Noi, and her grandchildren Le Dinh Doanh and Le Dinh Quang are also likely victims of forced confessions, as their battered images appeared on state television January 13, stoically confessing to making petrol bombs and other weapons to attack police. They admitted they had broken the law, even implicating prominent activist Nguyen Anh Tuan and blogger Le Dung Vova in encouraging “anti-state” activities.

All four subjects were covered in scrapes, black eyes, bruises, and swellings, and looked down as they spoke during the entire recording, appearing to be reading from statements off-camera.

Forced scripted confessions, particularly those aired on state television, are common in authoritarian regimes, like Vietnam, China, and North Korea.

State media also reported that Le Dinh Chuc, Le Dinh Kinh’s second son, is laying in a hospital; his condition is unknown.

The January 14 press conference further identified the three police officers killed in the raid as: Colonel Nguyen Huy Thinh, Captain Pham Cong Huy, and Lieutenant Duong Duc Hoang Quan.

After days of state media reporting that the villagers attacked and killed the officers by grenades, knives and petrol bombs, deputy head Quang admitted that the three individuals had fallen down a four-meter skylight in Kinh’s residence while pursuing suspects. He alleges that Dong Tam residents, upon seeing the officers in the well, poured gasoline and lit them on fire.

All three officers have been given posthumous awards and the honorary title of “martyr” by President and Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong for their service.

Vietnam has cracked down on those challenging the official narrative, and according to citizen-journalist Pham Doan Trang, the government has arrested people in Can Tho, Quang Ngai, and Dak Nong for posting online about the event. She also notes that land rights activists (and brothers) Trinh Ba Tu and Trinh Ba Phuong, who are in direct contact with the Dong Tam villagers and have worked to smuggle information out, are currently at high risk of arrest.

Facebook itself is now complicit in the oppression, activists say , as the government—using a cybersecurity law it passed in 2018—has succeeded in pressuring the company to remove videos and posts regarding the Dong Tam attack; Vietnam’s own online army has succeeded in bringing down some activists’ profiles through coordinated campaigns.

An example of a notification that users in Vietnam see for “banned” content. Photo: Dinh Thao

Vietnamese civil society organizations have responded accordingly, organizing several campaigns to bring awareness to the event, as well as pressure the Vietnamese government to address inconsistencies and unknowns in the government’s “evolving” narrative.

Luat Khoa Magazine, an independent journal that covers legal and political issues in Vietnam, has mailed a letter to To Lam, head of Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security with a list of fundamental legal questions for Mr. Lam to answer (English translation here), while a nationwide, weeklong “Pray for Dong Tam” color campaign launched Sunday, Jan 12, calling for calm, mourning, and an objective investigation into what transpired January 9 (English translation here).

Perhaps most significantly, the “Dong Tam Task Force”, an ad hoc organization established by leading Vietnamese activists, launched January 13 to organize, coordinate, and facilitate fact-finding in the Dong Tam attack (English translation here). It also aims to protect the remaining village witnesses from further government harassment and arrest.

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