Why Does the Vietnamese Government Hide Death Penalty Data?

Why Does the Vietnamese Government Hide Death Penalty Data?
Graphic: Shiv/Luat Khoa Magazine

In August 2023, the European Union denounced the Vietnamese government's lack of transparency in carrying out executions and concealing crucial data regarding these incidents [1]. This veil of secrecy has given rise to a flurry of speculation. According to Amnesty International, Vietnam has earned the dubious distinction of being labeled "the leading executioner in Southeast Asia." The country stands out for imposing one of the highest numbers of death sentences globally [2].

The puzzling question remains: Why does the Vietnamese government continue to impose capital punishment while shying away from the public disclosure of such actions?

The statistics on capital punishment can be horrifying

During the period from Aug. 21 to Aug. 25, the courts in Vietnam handed down no less than five death sentences, as reported by official newspapers and radio stations within the country. This follows a trend observed in the preceding week, from Aug. 14 to Aug. 18, during which a total of seven death sentences were announced.

Such grim numbers underscore a disquieting reality: Vietnam routinely sentences its citizens to death, an unsettling fact that plays out weekly. With an annual tally reaching into the hundreds, the nation stands as a stark example of a consistent practitioner of capital punishment.

In 2017, Vietnam disclosed its execution figures, revealing a staggering toll. Over a three-year period from 2013 to 2016, the country executed 429 individuals. This revelation propelled Vietnam to the unenviable status of the world's third-highest executioner [3].

However, a significant shift occurred subsequently. The Vietnamese government abruptly halted the public release of data concerning its executions. The conspicuous absence of these statistics leaves room for speculation, and the implications are chilling. The veil of secrecy not only shrouds the extent of the practice but also raises poignant questions about the motivations behind this concealed reality.

Unquestionably, the undisclosed data surrounding executions in Vietnam potentially paints a somber portrait. Its suppression insinuates that the government tacitly assumes a place among the world's preeminent "executioners," even if the explicit figures remain frustratingly out of reach.

The government shows no intention to abolish the death penalty

Embracing the global shift towards progress, the act of abolishing the death penalty has gained momentum worldwide. Countries aligned with this forward-looking trajectory embark on a journey marked by a systematic reduction in the execution of death sentences, often seeking avenues to commute or resolve previously declared judgments.

The notion of the death penalty, which was once confined to a nation's sovereign domain, now has transcended these boundaries. In the present context, the Vietnamese government finds itself in the position of having a number of foreign nationals on death row, a manifestation of the issue's international dimensions.

The annual publication of death penalty data serves as a pivotal benchmark, reflecting a country's stance on the trajectory of capital punishment elimination. This disclosure stands as a foundational testament to a nation's progress in eradicating this form of penalty from its justice system.

However, the opacity surrounding Vietnam's death penalty statistics casts a veiled affirmation. In all likelihood, the non-disclosure alludes to a lack of decline or even a potential increase in the number of death sentences pronounced over the years.

By the same token, the act of releasing such data would inadvertently shed light on Vietnam's commitment—or lack thereof—toward a gradual diminution of the death penalty. This, in turn, would underscore whether the country is aligning itself with the global trend of progressive abolition.

The Vietnamese government's reluctance to unveil these figures strongly suggests a desire to maintain punitive measures while evading international scrutiny. The concealment of execution data appears to be a strategic maneuver to retain the practice while minimizing external attention and criticism.

The government’s fear of publicly admitting the death penalty does not reduce crime

In Vietnam, capital punishment is most frequently meted out for offenses involving murder and drug-related crimes. The rationale underlying the government's position is that maintaining the death penalty serves as a deterrent for criminals. However, a scrutiny of pertinent figures presents a different perspective altogether.

A stark yet consistent reality emerges: the incidence of murders in Vietnam has held steady at an average of around three cases daily over the past decade. The Ministry of Public Security's records reveal a total of 6,850 murders transpiring from 2014 to 2019, translating to an annual average of approximately 1,141 cases, equating to three lives lost each day [4].

Amid the backdrop of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the numbers for 2021 and 2022 provide additional context. In 2021 the country witnessed 1,007 murders, indicating a 7.65% reduction compared to the preceding year's tally of 1,090 [5] [6]. After the pandemic was under control, in 2022, the figure rose to 1,297 cases, suggesting that the growth in crime rate was a concerning trend.

The narrative also extends to drug-related offenses, where the government's claims of capital punishment acting as a deterrent appear questionable. Over the past two decades, instances of drug-related cases have surged by over 200%. The authorities assert that the period between 2001 and 2007 saw a 33% increase in drug-related cases compared to the preceding years [7]. By 2020, the count had soared to 24,548 cases, further ballooning to 26,193 in 2021 and then to 26,967 in 2022 [8].

To ascertain the true impact of capital punishment on murder and drug crimes, one must scrutinize the correlation between the number of death sentences pronounced and the trajectory of these offenses over the years. An increased count of death sentences for these crimes, coupled with an unyielding or increasing prevalence of the crimes themselves, might cast doubt on the efficacy of such penalties as a deterrent.

The dwindling occurrence of death sentences, especially in murder and drug-related cases, could serve as a benchmark for evaluating the government's claims. If capital punishment did reduce these crime rates, Vietnam would have announced the statistics publicly to show its effectiveness. In the absence of such declarations, one might speculate that the government is not only perpetuating executions but also concealing data that could substantiate a sobering truth: the effectiveness of these punishments is, at best, equivocal.

This article was written in Vietnamese and was published in Luat Khoa Magazine on August 30, 2023. Karie Nguyen translated the article into English.


1. Báo cáo thường niên của EU về Nhân quyền và Dân chủ trên Thế giới năm 2022 - Cập nhật về Việt Nam | EEAS. (n.d.). https://www.eeas.europa.eu/human-rights-democracy-2022-report-vietnam_vi?s=184

2. Chen, H. (2022, May 27). Vietnam keeps its death sentences quiet. Rights groups say it’s one of the world’s biggest executioners. CNN. https://edition.cnn.com/2022/05/27/asia/vietnam-death-penalty-amnesty-hnk-intl/index.html

3. See [2].

4. Lê Tú. (2020, September 15). Ngăn chặn tội phạm giết người do nguyên nhân xã hội. Báo Nhân Dân Điện Tử. https://web.archive.org/web/20220606103847/https://nhandan.vn/thoi-su-phap-luat/ngan-chan-toi-pham-giet-nguoi-do-nguyen-nhan-xa-hoi-616909/

5. Báo động về tội phạm giết người Bài 1: Những vụ án đau lòng - Báo Tây Ninh Online. (n.d.). https://web.archive.org/web/20230827172750/https://baotayninh.vn/bai-1-nhung-vu-an-dau-long-a158217.html

6. Trần Phương. (2022). 3 góc khuất của án tử hình có thể bạn chưa bao giờ nghĩ đến. Luật Khoa Tạp Chí. https://www.luatkhoa.com/2022/10/3-goc-khuat-cua-an-tu-hinh-co-the-ban-chua-bao-gio-nghi-den/

7. Tờ trình - Về Dự án Luật sửa đổi, bổ sung một số điều của Luật Phòng, chống ma túy năm 2000. (2008, May 7). Chính Phủ. http://quochoi.vn/content/vankien/Lists/DanhSachVanKien/Attachments/2187/filedownload2187.doc

8. Vinh, T. N. V. (2023, June 9). Phương thức, thủ đoạn của tội phạm về ma túy trong đại dịch Covid-19 và giải pháp phòng, chống. © Kiem Sat Online. https://web.archive.org/web/20230827173013/https://kiemsat.vn/phuong-thuc-thu-doan-cua-toi-pham-ve-ma-tuy-trong-dai-dich-covid-19-va-giai-phap-phong-chong-65668.html

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