A perpetrator in a sexual assault case was caught on tape in Hanoi where he forcefully came onto a woman in an elevator of a building and kissed her on the lips.
The news coincided with what would have been about one year after the #MeToo movement first marked its impact in Vietnam. Last year, an intern at Tuoi Tre newspaper went public about her sexual harassment allegations against her boss in April 2018.
The recent sexual assault case stirred up even more public outrage in Vietnam this time and made headlines on international news outlets as well.
It is because the police in Hanoi only issued an administrative fine against the perpetrator where the whole world had already watched what he did to the woman and believed criminal charges should have been filed.
Images of him assaulted the victim was spreading rapidly online, but anger erupted on social media – from both men and women alike – after the authorities announced the fine of 200,000 VND (Approximately USD 8).
The public felt that the legal system had failed them.
During March 11-12, 2019, Vietnam underwent its third review under the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in front of the Human Rights Committee in Geneva, Switzerland. The recurring theme for the line of questions from the Committee concentrated on the ability of Vietnamese citizens to utilize their national legal framework to protect their human rights.
Vietnam’s legal system often faced criticisms from the international community due to its arbitrary application of the law in political cases. Vaguely defined penal codes under the category of “national security” crimes have been used to silence dissidents.
Most often, political opinions are all deemed to be either act of subversion against the people’s government or propaganda against the state.
And as such, for a while, arbitrary application of vague penal codes seem to be the problem that only political dissidents face in the country. Naturally, the call to reform the legal system in Vietnam has mostly been originating from this same group.
However, all of that has changed in March 2019 with this sexual assault case.
In just one night, an online campaign started by two young female activists, Ngoc Diep Dao and Nguyet Ha, on change.org gathered over 2,000 signatures.
The petition calls for legal reforms in the country with a specific request to the National Assembly to pass new legislation protecting victims of sexual assault and sexual harassment.
In recent months, the sexual assault in the building’s elevator was not the only case where the law failed to protect the victims of sexual assault and violence.
A nine-year-old girl alleged that a male adult raped and beat her, but the suspect was allowed to be released on bail because the authorities had deemed that his conducts were not dangerous enough to the community.
A male teacher who inappropriately touched his fifth graders was not criminally prosecuted.
The inability and unwillingness to prosecute the alleged perpetrators in these cases strongly highlighted the concerns of the Human Rights Committee during the ICCPR review: Vietnamese people currently do not have the support of a functional legal system to address their grievances when their human rights and their dignity are being violated.
The law enforcement, in the “elevator assault” case, arbitrarily applied a decree on protecting public order and preventing domestic violence instead of using a criminal code on assault.
The authorities’ excuse that Vietnam has yet to pass a specific penal code to punish the perpetrator in sexual assault and sexual harassment cases and therefore the law could not further protect the victim – as in the case at hand – is not a legally sound argument.
The forceful and unwanted kiss on the lips is a classic assault and battery. Vietnamese authorities in the past had sentenced a young woman to nine-month-imprisonment for slapping a police officer. The slap on the cheek or an unwanted kiss on the mouth have the same criminality in nature: they are both conducts that fall under the category of battery and assault.
While specific, well-defined sexual assault and battery crimes should and must be included in Vietnam’s Penal Code, at the same, we shall not tolerate the police who refused to apply a regular battery and assault charge against the perpetrator either.
It seemed that the Deputy Prime Minister, Truong Hoa Binh, might have agreed. On March 22, 2019, he had requested the City of Hanoi and its police to conduct a review of the case.
In the meanwhile, the people continue to voice their demand to change the current legal framework to protect victims of sexual assault and harassment.
Even though change.org itself is being blocked here and there in the country this year (coincidently after the new Cybersecurity took effect earlier in January), by the time this article goes to press, close to 4,000 Vietnamese people and 14 civil society organizations have signed the petition during the past four days.