First, it means that the chief justice of the Supreme People’s Court, Nguyen Hoa Binh, has been officially promoted. He was elected to the Politburo for the first time on January 31, 2021, at the first meeting of the VCP 13th Central Committee.
Nguyen Hoa Binh is the second chief justice in the history of Vietnam’s Supreme People’s Court to be elected to the Politburo. The Politburo is the agency that chooses the most powerful politicians in the Party.
The other chief justice on the Politburo was also named Hoa Binh, but had the surname Truong; he was elected to the Politburo in January 2016 at the 12th Party Congress. However, Truong Hoa Binh was moved into an executive position as the deputy prime minister almost immediately thereafter, when Vietnam’s National Assembly met in a special session during April of that same year. During that time, it was Nguyen Hoa Binh who replaced Truong Hoa Binh as the chief justice of the Supreme People’s Court and he held this position since.
If Nguyen Hoa Binh can continue to be the chief justice for the next five years, it will be the very first time that the Supreme People’s Court has had someone with real power in the Politburo.
A chief justice in the past was not a very meaningful position in the Party. Up to now, there have been only a few chief justices that were included as members of the Central Committee.
In addition to the two “Hoa Binhs” mentioned above, there were only two others, Pham Hung and Nguyen Van Hien. The other three chief justices – Pham Van Bach, Tran Cong Tuong, and Trinh Hong Duong – were not even selected as members of the Central Committee. The absence of the chief justices in the Central Committee glaringly emboldened the Party in how it dealt with the judicial branch in Vietnam’s political system. That is, the Party did not see the judiciary as a body with significant power.
One would think that judges and justices should not be members of the only political party in the country so that they can be neutral and independent. One would hope that the judicial branch would remain neutral so that we can have fair trials in the country. However, in reality, this is not the case in Vietnam.
Vietnam does not have an independent judicial branch and the above standard cannot be applied in this country. One’s position within the Party determines the actual political power of a party member, and not any state position one may also hold. The Politburo is the agency that Vo Van Kiet – at one time – had considered to be “superior” to the Central Committee, and gaining a position on the Politburo was the ultimate political goal for the most ambitious and successful Party members in Vietnam.
Being in the Politburo is a reward that the Communist Party gave Nguyen Hoa Binh. We do not know enough to say what he did to receive such an honor. But what he has done in the past five years may possibly offer us some clues.
His appointment is most likely a reward for his role in directing the courts to hear a series of prominent cases related to the “anti-graft” campaign that General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong started. For the first time in Vietnam’s contemporary history, many high-ranking party members were tried and convicted with extremely heavy sentences: Dinh La Thang, Nguyen Bac Son, Truong Minh Tuan, Trinh Xuan Thanh, and others.
Also, there were many political cases in the past five years which the Party deemed to be closely related to the security of the regime. These include cases related to the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam (2020), the Brotherhood of Democracy (2016), Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh (blogger Mother Mushroom, 2017), etc. From 2016 to date, the number of dissidents who have been tried has increased much higher than in the past, to the point that the opposition has almost been wiped out in Vietnam.
If the VCP rewarded Chief Justice Nguyen Hoa Binh for the way he handled the cases mentioned above, then we can see that it only encouraged the judicial branch to be more of a supportive team player within the authoritarian regime the Party has created, and that trials cannot be considered independent or the place to resolve injustices in society.
This means that people, such as wrongful death-row inmate Ho Duy Hai, a peasant who was tried and convicted for fighting for his land as was Le Dinh Chuc of Dong Tam Village, or those political dissidents like Pham Chi Dung and Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, who have almost no chance to plead for justice.
Nguyen Hoa Binh was directly involved in the cassation trial of Ho Duy Hai in May 2020, and he was the person who continuously insisted that Ho Duy Hai was guilty, despite all the evidence that Hai’s attorney presented in court. Nguyen Hoa Binh was the center of widespread public criticism during the cassation trial, but he was still promoted by the VCP.
The rise of Chief Justice Binh only proves that the Party is willing to disregard public opinion in order to keep its political power. Now, with his promotion, activists who are involved with the democracy movement in Vietnam may suffer more consequences. With this new position that makes him more powerful than before, Binh may begin to punish those who once made him lose face by criticizing him in public.
It is true that the fact that Chief Justice Nguyen Hoa Binh was elevated to the Politburo may slightly enhance the status of the judicial branch in Vietnam’s political system. However, that doesn’t mean that the courts in Vietnam will be fairer and more independent. If Nguyen Hoa Binh’s promotion means anything, it is that the courts will act more like the powerful tools of the VCP so that the Party can continue to strengthen its one-party political power in the country.
This article was written in Vietnamese by Trinh Huu Long and previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on February 2, 2021. The translation was done by Jade NG.