Death in Custody: The Hidden Perils of Vietnam’s Police Brutality

Death in Custody: The Hidden Perils of Vietnam’s Police Brutality

It is an open secret in Vietnam that brutality and torture are rampant at police stations [1] across the country.

Last month, on Aug. 19, a Vietnamese man from Tuyen Quang Province died at a police station in Ha Giang after being arrested two days earlier in the locality while settling a personal problem. He told his wife earlier that the police had beaten him during the questioning. The Ha Giang Police Department, on the other hand, said that he “committed suicide” by tying up his legs and hands and dipping his head into a water tank.

On Aug. 17, another man from Hai Phong was hospitalized in a coma after spending two days in police detention under investigation for theft. His father told state media that his son’s face had bruises and looked pale, although he looked healthy at the time of his arrest.

On May 25, a man from Bu Dang District in southern Binh Phuoc Province was reported dead only a few hours [2] after being held at a local police detention center. Bu Dang police previously detained him on suspicion of stealing electrical wires. The autopsy results showed that the deceased man had several bruises on his body. The authorities later announced that he tested positive for drugs and that his death resulted from “acute pulmonary edema,” a fluid buildup in a patient’s lungs. The local police department claimed the accusations that he was beaten to death by police officers were “groundless.”

The latest deaths and injuries recorded at Vietnamese police stations are tiny pieces of a big picture about the hidden peril of brutality committed by law enforcement officers. Most of the time, the police agencies shifted the blame to the criminal detainees, claiming they “committed suicide” while in custody to justify these ambiguous deaths and shirk their responsibility. And since those alleged tortures were committed behind closed doors, there is no evidence to verify such allegations and hold the suspected police officers accountable.

Nguyen Van Chuong, Forced Confessions, and a Wrongful Death Sentence

The national police force, which remains under the official authority of Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security (MPS), is adept at utilizing torture and physical coercion as a convenient tactic to speed up the crime investigation process. Such notorious practice has been carried out to extract forced confessions from alleged suspects and detainees.

Recently, the public in Vietnam was shocked by the widespread use of violence in Vietnam’s criminal justice system following the execution announcement of Nguyen Van Chuong, a wrongful death-row prisoner.

Chuong, a Hai Duong native convicted of murder and sentenced to death in a 2008 trial, repeatedly pleaded not guilty. The Hai Duong man said that he was brutally tortured and intimidated by police officers to confess to the crimes he did not commit. The investigative police agency of the city of Hai Phong concluded that Chuong killed a police officer in the city in 2007 in an attempt to rob his money to buy drugs. The evidence used to prosecute and convict him was entirely based on confessions taken under extreme duress.

During visits with his family, Chuong recounted [3] his experience as a suspect under investigation at a Vietnamese police station. He told his father, Nguyen Truong Chinh, about the torture committed by police investigators to make him confess against his will. Chuong said that investigators allegedly tied his arms around the back of a chair and then used a wrench to hit his knees and ankles. On another occasion, the police clamped ballpoint pens between his fingers, where only skin and bones lay bare, then pressed them hard.

Chinh informed Luat Khoa Magazine in an interview of other humiliating abuses that his son had purportedly experienced. The police once stripped his clothes off and hung him upside down from the detention cell’s ceiling. At another time, the investigators forcefully slapped both ears of Chuong. He also endured mental distress in police confinement as he was denied legitimate rights, including the right to visit his family and his legal representative.

Nguyen Trong Doan, Chuong’s brother, said that he was also assaulted by the police officers who were investigating his brother’s murder allegations. Previously, Doan tried to meet and bring forward alibi witnesses who confirmed that Chuong was not present at the crime scene at the time of the murder. In a 2019 interview with Luat Khoa, [4] Doan said the investigators shackled and hit him many times during questioning sessions. According to Doan, the police only released him after he agreed to write and sign a written confession prepared by the investigation agency, stating that he fabricated Chuong’s alibi to help his brother evade the charges.

The Perils of Vietnam’s Police Brutality

Police brutality is a global predicament, and many human rights organizations and activists have opposed torture by the police against people with distinct racial, religious, and political backgrounds.

But in authoritarian one-party regimes like Vietnam, where the executive branch wields significant power, calls to promote greater transparency and adopt a human rights-centered approach in criminal investigation procedures have often been brushed aside.

The United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT), in a report [5] released in 2016, proposed several suggestions for Vietnam to enhance its application and implementation of torture prevention.

The UNCAT proposals called on Vietnam to apply criminal procedure measures in investigating and prosecuting persons who commit acts of torture or who obtain testimonies by force; to facilitate lawyers’ engagement in criminal proceedings; study and pilot the use of audio and video recording in criminal proceedings; and strengthen education regarding the code of ethics.

It also urged the country to promote activities to improve the efficiency of law enforcement and human rights protection monitoring and introduce annual inspection and supervision of anti-torture legislation for government agencies and public officials, especially investigating police forces.

In reality, little has been achieved in Vietnam since the publication of the UNCAT report. The MPS has exclusively handled the criminal investigation procedures, and nearly no efficient agencies are responsible for monitoring police criminal procedure measures or holding the alleged officers who committed torture accountable. Many suspicious deaths reported in police custody were ignored, and no further investigation was initiated to find the alleged perpetrators.

The incidence of suspicious police station deaths will likely remain unchanged if there are no meaningful amendments to the current criminal procedure measures of Vietnam’s law enforcement. Ultimately, only ordinary citizens suffer under the hands of merciless policemen.


[1] The Vietnamese Magazine. (2023). Vietnam Recorded Several Cases of Alleged Police Brutality; Hanoi Expected to Upgrade Ties with U.S., Australia. The Vietnamese Magazine.

[2] RFA. (2023, May 30). Bình Phước: Nghi phạm chết trong đồn công an huyện, gia đình bức xúc vì công an che giấu thông tin. Radio Free Asia.

[3] Nguyễn, V. (2021, November 27). 8 màn tra tấn có thể bạn chưa biết. Luật Khoa tạp chí.

[4] Phương, T. (2023). Em trai tử tù Nguyễn Văn Chưởng: Anh tôi đang ở Hải Dương khi án mạng xảy ra ở Hải Phòng. Luật Khoa Tạp Chí.

[5] OHCHR. (n.d.). Committee against Torture considers the initial report of Viet Nam.

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