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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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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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9th Annual Vietnam Advocacy Day

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Vietnam Advocacy Day is an annual event, organized by Boat People SOS, where Vietnamese Americans across the United States come to Washington, DC to meet with their representatives to voice about human rights issues in Vietnam and to connect with other Vietnamese diaspora community, human rights witnesses and advocates. Due to COVID-19, the 9th annual VNAD 2020 will take place through several webinars.

Please register for the webinars at the links below.

Webinar 1: Friday July 31st, 9AM- 11AM EDT

Topic: Freedom of Religion and the Rights of Indegenous Peoples

Register for Webinar 1: http://tiny.cc/VAD2020-FORB-1

Webinar 2: Friday July 31st, 1PM- 3PM EDT

Topic: Freedom of Religion and the Rights of Indegenous Peoples continued

Register for Webinar 2: http://tiny.cc/VAD2020-FORB-2

Webinar 3: Friday August 7th, 9AM- 11AM EDT

Topic: Freedom of Expression, the Press and Internet

Register for Webinar 3http://tiny.cc/VAD2020-EXPRESSION

Webinar 4: Friday August 7th, 1PM- 3PM EDT

Topic: Freedom of Expression, the Press and Internet
Topic: Prisoners of Conscience and Torture

Register for Webinar 4: http://tiny.cc/VAD2020-POC

Webinar 5: Friday August 14th, 9AM- 11AM EDT

Topic: UN Mechanisms and Sanctions

Register for Webinar 5: http://tiny.cc/VAD2020-UN

Webinar 6: Friday August 14th, 1PM- 3PM EDT

Topic: Freedom of Expression, the Press and Internet
Topic: UN Mechanisms and Sanctions – continued

Register for Webinar 6http://tiny.cc/VAD2020-SANCTION

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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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