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Death Penalty

Wrongful Death Penalty Cases And The Families That The Inmates Left Behind

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Death row inmates Ho Duy Hai, Le Van Manh, Nguyen Van Chuong. Photo credits: Luat Khoa magazine

Mrs. Loan began to cry softly as she spoke to me one afternoon in late March, when I called to ask if there were any updates on her son Ho Duy Hai, who is sitting on death row in Long An province on a wrongful conviction.

“He is so young, and yet already has suffered over a decade of imprisonment,” she told me over the phone. “I want him to come back home and live a normal life. I want him to get married, and have a child. Sometimes, I just really wish to have a paternal grandchild and that both of my children could live with me like in those happy days before.”

I have been in contact with the Hai family for the past four years, since I first joined the community of Vietnamese bloggers and activists calling for the suspension of Hai’s execution in December 2014, after then President Truong Tan Sang issued an order to stop his execution. It was  then that I began studying his case a bit more and learned that the evidence submitted for his conviction was invalid, and quite frankly, illegal. 

For example, the local authorities wanted to ensure Hai was found guilty and so they purchased a knife at a market and marked it as “similar” to the weapon that they alleged Hai had used in committing the robbery and murder of two women. And with such “evidence,” Hai was convicted and sentenced to death in 2008, when he was a recent college graduate, and just 23-years-old. 

Throughout these years, I have also gotten closer to two more families of Vietnamese who have been handed wrongful death penalties. Those include the families of Nguyen Van Chuong and Le Van Manh. These two men also were convicted and sentenced to death in their 20s with no evidence and following alleged torture by police officers. These three groups of parents meet every month in Hanoi and go together to petition the government to overturn the wrongful conviction of their sons. Each month, if they saved enough money to buy supplies, they will also visit their sons in prison. All of the men were convicted and have been kept behind bars for more than a decade.

Yet, visiting their sons is not quite an easy task because of the financial strain on these families. The words of Le Van Manh’s mother – Mrs. Viet – broke my heart during our most recent telephone call, also in March this year. “If I manage to earn enough money, then I will go to see my son, but making money to support my family is quite difficult given my age,” she told me. “So for some months, I have not been able to see Manh.” 

My colleague based in Vietnam told me that catching fish and other aquatic creatures at the river near Mrs. Viet’s house was the main source of her income. Yet, her determination to fight against his unjust conviction has been so powerful. 

I asked her if she was able to talk about his case when she visited him in jail. “The officers don’t like me to talk about it, but I tell Manh anyways,” she said. “Manh needs hope and the information that people have not forgotten him and are fighting for him gives him hope.”

Mr. Chinh, Nguyen Van Chuong’s father, also has the same fighting spirit. He sends me documents and updates me on Facebook about his son’s case. This year, Mr. Chinh shared with me that the Supreme People’s Procuracy Office in Hanoi contacted him and invited him to go see them. The office told Mr. Chinh that they had sent a request for a trial for cassation in Nguyen Van Chuong’s case. However, the Supreme People’s Court of Vietnam denied such a request without giving any apparent reason. The Procuracy Office used that excuse and the denial to tell Mr. Chinh to stop contacting them. However, that was not a legally sound argument. First, the office recognized that the case needed to be reviewed. Second, the law allows the office to continue sending their request, even after the denial. In fact, the Procuracy Office should continue to submit their requests for Nguyen Van Chuong and not tell his father to forget about the case.

The cost for discussing the details of their cases with their family members during visitations has been quite severe for Nguyen Van Chuong and Le Van Manh. Both of them claimed that they were shackled 24 hours a day a few times. Nguyen Van Chuong’s father also told me that Chuong was being beaten up by other inmates in his prison and being forced to sign a letter for the local authorities confessing to the murder he was convicted of. Yet, the families and the inmates did not yield in front of these pressures and they kept on petitioning for a review of their cases.

Different than Ho Duy Hai, both Chuong and Manh already had children before their conviction. But their wives could not withstand the pressure of having a spouse that was given a death penalty conviction and so they left their children to be raised by Chuong’s and Manh’s parents. The responsibility to raise the children while still trying to exonerate the two men greatly added to the burden of the two families, who are already straining to survive. The grandparents are elderly and cannot find jobs that provide a fair and reasonable income. But at the same time, they have to provide support for a lot of people in their families. 

In Vietnam, there is no organization that really focuses on the issue of the anti-death penalty or that assists people with wrongful convictions. And even though I work on this issue, my non-profit organization is not recognized by the Vietnamese government and our work is classified as “reactionary” conduct. More than that, none of the death row inmates would be allowed visitations by an organization or non-family persons, not even the International Committee of the Red Cross. The inmates are shut off from society entirely and can not have any contact with  people and organizations that care about their cases. In fact, visitations by independent organizations working on behalf of inmates, including those sitting on death row, was a request made by the Committee Against Torture  in its concluding observations for Vietnam in 2018.

As the person who has brought these three cases before the different international law reviews, such as the Committee Against Torture and the Universal Periodic Review of Vietnam, where specific inquiries were asked about them, it is very frustrating for me that international law – such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) – had not been used for the benefit of the wrongfully-accused inmates. The Human Rights Committee (a body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the ICCPR) sadly acknowledged the fact that the covenant could not actually be implemented by the people of Vietnam in its third periodic report on Vietnam early in 2019. 

The families of Hai, Chuong, and Manh don’t really have support from the public or civil society organizations that operate in Vietnam. They are almost alone during their monthly petitioning to the authorities in Hanoi. They need to find some financial resources to buy supplies to visit their sons each month. More than that, no one actually assists them with funds to buy paper and pay postage fees to send their monthly petitions. And yet, none of the parents will call for financial support from the public for their families when I spoke to them. Instead, they all told me that they just want a review of the cases in an independent court of law. 

Their determination and belief in justice and rule of law always encourages and inspires me to continue to bring their cases to more people, which I will do until the day that these cases are  fairly reviewed and rightfully settled.

Death Penalty

A Spark Of Hope For Ho Duy Hai’s Family As New Alibi Emerges

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Photo credit (background): Canva. Photo credit (from left to right): Ho Duy Hai’s family, Nguyen Lan Thang. Graphic design: The Vietnamese Magazine

On June 24, 2021, Attorney Tran Hong Phong, the lawyer for Ho Duy Hai and his family in their petition for his wrongful death penalty case, published a letter on his Facebook account, providing a new alibi regarding the case. Five lawyers (including Phong), two journalists working for a law newspaper, and Ho Duy Hai’s family jointly signed the letter.

The letter, which had been previously sent to the Procurator of Supreme People’s Procuracy of Vietnam and the Vietnamese authorities, provides convincing proof [1] to demonstrate that Ho Duy Hai was not the murderer of two post office workers in Long An Province in 2008.

Alternatively, the new evidence shows that on the evening of January 13, 2008, Ho Duy Hai actually did not go to Cau Voi Post Office, where the murder took place, but rather attended the funeral of Ho Chi, also known as Tu Lan, a neighbor who lived just 500 meters from Hai’s house.

Furthermore, the new evidence also shows that Ho Duy Hai was at the funeral from 7:50 pm until 9 pm, which coincides with the time the Long An Police investigative agency alleged he had entered the Cau Voi Post Office, at around 7:30 pm, to murder the two victims at around 8:30 pm allegedly. Seven witnesses, who also attended the funeral, including the deceased’s wife, have confirmed this fact.[2]

Ho Duy Hai received a death penalty for his convictions of homicide and robbery, despite “serious procedural shortcomings”[3] and violations of the defendant’s right to a fair trial. 

This controversial and invalid case has set his family and their attorney on a decade-long journey [4] of calling for the suspension of his execution. They finally reached a cassation trial [5] in 2020, but Ho Duy Hai was once again declared guilty of the crimes and sentenced to death.[6]

Although the presumption of innocence has been recognized [7] in its 2015 Criminal Procedures Code, Vietnam has fallen short of actually practicing this principle in its criminal proceedings. Quite commonly, the number of cases and the speed at which a case must be solved dwarf the importance of proper due process to uphold a fair and just trial. 

A local lawyer explained [8] that investigative agencies could deploy “professional” methods to extract forced confessions from people since these agencies “often hold prejudices” against the accused. Also, earlier this month, the People’s Court of Dak Song District, in Dak Nong Province, held [9] nearly 60 “pretend” trials, to meet its quota for a local judge to be reappointed, without any real defendants or victims.

However, the new evidence provided by his attorney might prove that Ho Duy Hai was wrongfully convicted, which would be a spark of hope for both the defendant and his family as the possibility of retrial could be high.

To strengthen the validity of the new proof, Attorney Phong confirmed that all seven witnesses “voluntarily provided the information and confirmation letters to affirm that their testimonies are true and vowed to take full responsibility under the law […].” 

In their letter, the attorney and the signees demanded Vietnamese government officials expeditiously verify the evidence, review the cassation decision, release defendant Ho Duy Hai on bail while awaiting verification; and review and resolve their previous petitions and demands.

The case of Ho Duy Hai has drawn wide attention from both national and international audiences, as he was convicted of murder and later sentenced to death via an opaque and unfair trial.

Bibliography:

[1] RFA. (2021, June 25). Vụ án Hồ Duy Hải: Luật sư cung cấp bằng chứng ngoại phạm mới. Đài Á Châu Tự Do. https://www.rfa.org/vietnamese/news/vietnamnews/ho-duy-hai-case-lawyer-provides-new-proof-06252021081856.html

[2] HCMC Reporters. (2021, June 25). Vụ án tử tù Hồ Duy Hải: Luật sư cung cấp tình tiết bất ngờ. Dân Việt. https://danviet.vn/vu-an-tu-tu-ho-duy-hai-luat-su-cung-cap-tinh-tiet-bat-ngo-2021062515064789.htm

[3] Will, N. (2019, December 3). After Decade of Petitions, Vietnam to Re-consider Case of Death Row Inmate Ho Duy Hai. The Vietnamese Magazine. https://www.thevietnamese.org/2019/12/after-decade-of-petitions/

[4] Vi, T. Q. (2019, September 29). Wrongful Death Penalty Cases And The Families That The Inmates Left Behind. The Vietnamese Magazine. https://www.thevietnamese.org/2019/09/wrongful-death-penalty-cases-and-the-families-that-the-inmates-left-behind/

[5] Thereporter. (2020a, May 7). Ho Duy Hai’s Cassation Trial. The Vietnamese Magazine. https://www.thevietnamese.org/2020/05/ho-duy-hais-cassation-trial/

[6] Thereporter. (2020b, May 9). Ho Duy Hai’s Case Reaffirmed, Sentenced to Death Again. The Vietnamese Magazine. https://www.thevietnamese.org/2020/05/ho-duy-hais-case-reaffirmed-sentenced-to-death-again/

[7] V.L.L.F. (2018, June 1). Legal experts discuss presumption of innocence, due process principles in criminal proceedings. Vietnam Law and Legal Forum. https://vietnamlawmagazine.vn/legal-experts-discuss-presumption-of-innocence-due-process-principles-in-criminal-proceedings-6244.html

[8] Thi, D. (2021, June 25). Liệu có tái thẩm vụ án Hồ Duy Hải với chứng cứ ngoại phạm mới? Đài Á Châu Tự Do. https://www.rfa.org/vietnamese/in_depth/will-the-ho-duy-hai-case-be-retrial-with-new-alibi-dt-06252021114054.html

[9] Duong, D. (2021, June 6). Tòa huyện lập gần 60 vụ án “ảo” để. . . một thẩm phán được bổ nhiệm lại? Dan Tri. https://dantri.com.vn/xa-hoi/toa-huyen-lap-gan-60-vu-an-ao-de-mot-tham-phan-duoc-bo-nhiem-lai-20210606162322706.htm

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Death Penalty

Ho Duy Hai’s Case Reaffirmed, Sentenced to Death Again

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Ho Duy Hai with his sister before his conviction. Photo courtesy: Ho Duy Hai's family

On May 8, 2020, around 15:30 Hanoi’s time, the 17 members-committee of the Supreme People’s Court of Vietnam reaffirmed Ho Duy Hai’s lower courts’ decisions and again sentenced him to death. They have also denied the petition for a cassation trial from the Supreme People’s Procuracy of Vietnam.

Hai’s death sentence has been affirmed

In its statement denying the petition from the Judicial Committee of the Supreme People’s Procuracy of Vietnam, the committee even though agreed there were prosecutorial mistakes. Still, its members believed those mistakes did not change the character of the case. Accordingly, the Judicial Committee of the highest court believed that the lower courts have duly convicted Hai and sentenced him to death. Therefore, they affirmed the lower courts’ decisions, effectively sentenced Hai to death again.

Ho Duy Hai’s family and his lawyer after the decision was announced. Photo courtesy: Nguyen Xuan Dien

The Judicial Committee of the Supreme People’s Court believed these prosecutorial mistakes did not change the character of the case. Yet, if we look at them from an international law perspective, they might have violated the defendant’s right to a fair trial. The errors admitted by the government were among the followings:

  • No murder weapons. The alleged “weapons” were purchased at a market by the police.
  • Hai’s DNA, fingerprints were not found at the crime scene.
  • Hai also was convicted of ‘robbery’ in the same case, but the police could not find any of the items alleged to be robbed by him.
  • No eyewitness identified Hai at the crime scene.

Technically, there was no physical evidence. The only evidence in the case was Hai’s confession. Under Vietnam’s laws, the confession could not be the sole evidence used to convict defendants.

Would Hai’s life be saved under Vietnam’s laws?

The cassation trial is the highest court’s proceeding in a case in Vietnam. But Hai still has three options (link is in Vietnamese) under Vietnam’s laws to save his life.

  1. The National Assembly could intervene and request the Judicial Committee of the Supreme People’s Court to conduct a meeting to review the cassation trial’s decision.
  2. The Head of the Supreme People’s Procuracy of Vietnam petitioned, or the Chief Justice of the Supreme People’s Court requested the Judicial Committee to review their decision in the cassation trial.
  3. The President of Vietnam pardons the death sentence.

The cassation trial of Ho Duy Hai during the past three days has created a lot of public discussion in Vietnam. People have discussed the case because many of them saw the injustice of Ho Duy Hai’s judgment during the last twelve years.

Representative Le Thanh Van at the National Assembly. Photo courtesy: Bao Moi

One of the National Assembly’s members, Mr. Le Thanh Van, a representative Ca Mau province, has also expressed his opinion on his Facebook account. Mr. Le said that he would do all that he could to push for Vietnam’s Congress to intervene with this case. He stated that the decision of the cassation trial is unconvincing and not persuasive enough.

Numerous attorneys and journalists also expressed on social media that the decision of the cassation trial’s decision was not fair. They believed that Ho Duy Hai should have been released. One of them was Huy Duc, the author of the book The Winning Side (Ben Thang Cuoc).

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Death Penalty

Ho Duy Hai’s Cassation Trial

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Ho Duy Hai. Photo courtesy: Ho Duy Hai's family.

On May 6, 2020, a cassation trial started for Ho Duy Hai – a death-row inmate in Vietnam. His mother has been requesting the courts to review his wrongfully convicted case for the past decade. In one of our previous articles, we detailed the facts of his wrongful conviction in 2008.

This trial is expected to last for three days at the Supreme People’s Court of Vietnam in Hanoi which is the highest court of the country. It is led by Mr. Nguyen Hoa Binh, the current Chief Justice of Vietnam.

Below is the summary of the first day of Hai’s cassation trial.

What is a cassation trial?

The Supreme People’s Court of Vietnam on May 6, 2020. Photo courtesy: Justice Newspaper

The cassation trial is a special court proceeding in Vietnam to review the lower court’s decisions. There must be a petition asking the highest court for a review because of irregularities or illegal conduct in the lower court’s proceedings.

This proceeding does not review the facts of the case. Rather, the review only focuses on whether there have been prosecutorial mistakes which influence the decision of the lower courts.

The decision from a cassation trial could result in six different ways:

  1. Affirm the lower courts’ decisions and deny the petition for a cassation trial;
  2. Void the lower courts’ decisions and order a new investigation of the case;
  3. Void the lower courts’ decisions and order a new trial;
  4. Void the lower courts’ decisions and halt the case;
  5. Amend the lower courts’ decisions, and
  6. Halt the cassation trial.

What is the stand of the Supreme People’s Procuracy of Vietnam on this case?

In Ho Duy Hai’s case, after receiving a request for a petition in his case from Hai’s family, the Supreme People’s Procuracy of Vietnam petitioned for a cassation trial at the end of 2019. At the cassation trial on May 6, 2020, the Supreme People’s Procuracy of Vietnam stated its decision to request this trial as follows:

Accordingly, as reported by Justice newspaper in Vietnam, the decisions from both the trial court and appellate court in Ho Duy Hai’s case were inconsistent with the objectivity of the case; the gathering and examining of evidence and data were not completed, and the case contained a lot of conflicting issues but was not clarified. The Supreme People’s Procuracy of Vietnam requested “the highest court to void both the trial and appellate decisions in Ho Duy Hai’s case for ‘robbery’ and ‘murder’, as well as issue an order for a new investigation.”

Ho Duy Hai’s Lawyer, Tran Hong Phong, is the first attorney to attend a cassation trial in the history of Vietnam

Attorney Tran Hong Phong. Photo courtesy: VNExpress

Cassation trial is a review court, not for arguing facts or procedures. In Vietnam, cassation trial does not allow lawyers for the defendant. However, from Tuoi Tre newspaper, the highest court has made an exception in this case to invite Ho Duy Hai’s attorney to attend.

Attorney Tran Hong Phong is the first lawyer for a defendant to attend the cassation trial. From Mr. Phong, the court invited him because it saw him as a person with related responsibility in the case as he got some evidence. The evidence raised by Mr. Phong and Hai’s family included the testimony of an eyewitness. The eyewitness had told the police at the time that he saw a young man at the crime scene, but that person was not Ho Duy Hai. The eyewitness did not know Ho Duy Hai at the time and he did not recognize the person he saw was Hai.

However, after the morning session of the first day of the cassation trial, Mr. Phong was asked to not come to the other sessions of the case. The court will continue the case with discussions of the court and the other governmental entities.

Ho Duy Hai’s family believes justice will come when Hai is exonerated

Hai’s younger sister, Ho Thi Thu Thuy, stated: “I desperately hope that this trial will happen in a transparent, equal manner and that it will practice justice. If this trial exonerates my older brother Hai, then I will believe justice is still present in Vietnam. If it concludes like the other previous decisions to deem him guilty, then Vietnam does not have justice and the law in Vietnam would not worth our respect to upholding.”

Some pictures during the first day of Ho Duy Hai’s cassation trial

Ho Duy Hai’s family, including his aunt, his mother, and his younger sister and attorney Tran Hong Phong
Chief Justice Nguyen Hoa Binh began the trial. Photo courtesy: Vietnam News Agency
Member of the Supreme People’s Procuracy of Vietnam. Vietnam News Agency

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