Dissidents and critical bloggers are routinely charged with vague national security laws and their cases fast tracked through courts resulting in criminal convictions and harsh prison sentences
By Zachary Abuza
The Vietnamese government’s continued crackdown on dissent has put the legal system under new scrutiny. Dissidents and critical bloggers are routinely charged with vague national security laws and their cases fast tracked through courts resulting in criminal convictions and harsh prison sentences. At least eight dissidents, activists and bloggers have been detained in 2014; 36 are currently imprisoned by certain estimates.
Yet it is the pervasive use of torture and abuse that has brought the harshest spotlight on the country’s law enforcement. A new Human Rights Watch (HRW) report issued this week documents endemic abuse and mistreatment of prisoners, including 14 detainees whom the police admit to having killed while in detention. The report also details four unexplained but suspicious deaths, six “suicides” of suspects, four who died due to the lack of adequate medical care and countless others who were severely injured between 2010-2014.
Despite this widespread and well-documented repression, the situation is beginning to change, albeit gradually. In a break from the past, the Communist Party-dominated government has started to acknowledge the extent of police abuse in winning criminal prosecutions. Against a growing chorus of public anger, often expressed in the country’s vibrant blogosphere, pervasive police brutality has become a recognized threat to the regime’s legitimacy.
In two well publicized meetings in July, Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang called on state prosecutors and public security officials to end the pervasive practice of forcing false confessions through brutality and torture. Police and prosecutors are under pressure to deliver results. Economic reforms have eased total state control over parts of society, a devolution that by some estimates has unintentionally led to surging crime rates.
In the first six months of 2014, there were 53,000 criminal cases with some 83,000 defendants, a 2.2% increase from the same period in 2013. Cases of corruption increased 10% in 2014, while narcotics cases rose by 2.6 percent. Yet the highest growth rate was from so-called “justice violations”, which increased 14.7%.
The overt use of coercive measures to gain verdicts has undermined public trust in the state in general and the judicial system in particular. As Sang warned in his speech, “Those people are destroying the system and the people’s confidence in the government.” He stated that police brutality would no longer be tolerated and threatened legal action against those found to be violating prisoner rights.
On August 25, the Ministry of Public Security issued Circular 28, known as “Regulating the Conduct of Criminal Investigations by the People’s Public Security”, in a bid to end coercive practices and improve accountability. The circular states that all police investigations must “comply with the Constitution and laws; respect the interests of the state, human rights, and the rights and legitimate interests of offices, organizations and individuals”.
Article 31 of the same circular prohibits police from “obtaining coerced statements or coercively planting statements, or using corporal punishment in any form.” The ordinance clearly aims to improve accountability and calls on police to respect their “responsibility before the law” rather then their “responsibility before their superiors.”
These are clear improvements over prior ordinances. Yet it is going to take time before they can take institutional root and change the culture that has allowed torture and abuses to flourish for decades. Moreover, Circular 28 seems to diminish what little notion of presumption of innocence that there was through new restrictions on the activities of defense lawyers.
In their September 16 report, Human Rights Watch found that there were allegations of police torture in 44 of the country’s 58 provinces and all five major cities, a practice that targets not only political dissidents and independent bloggers but also ordinary people who have simply run afoul of the law.
The report is chilling in its detail, in particular of the 28 people who recently died in mysterious circumstances while detained while under investigation. In the past year, several people falsely convicted of crimes have been released.
Others who were tortured or threatened with death if they did not confess to crimes are now trying to seek official compensation. Although unlikely to succeed, their petitions are attracting media attention. But the most important reforms have been the investigations and trials of police for alleged prisoner brutality.
Public outcry, party response
In February 2014, there was a public outcry after three policemen who admitted to beating a robbery suspect during investigations were not charged after the suspect died the following day of hemorrhaging. Since then, the government appears to be doing more to combat the problem.
In April 2014, prosecutors in Phu Yen province retried five policemen who had earlier been charged and convicted of beating a suspect to death. The three had received lenient sentences of between 18 months and five year sentences, while two received only suspended sentences.
In addition, the deputy police chief of the town who led the investigation, but was not originally indicted, was also charged. In May 2014, prosecutors filed charges against five Hanoi policemen who beat a suspect to death in August 2012. In August 2014, prosecutors charged two policemen in the Mekong Delta province of Dong Thap for beating a suspect to death. This month a court in Hanoi sentenced four policemen to up to 17 years for beating a suspect to death in 2012.
The Justice Commission of Vietnam’s National Assembly held their first hearings on the subject of police brutality on September 11. Truong Trong Nghia, vice chairman of the Vietnam Bar Association (VBA), was outspoken in his testimony: “Torture still exists; [investigators] treat suspects like their enemies rather than their equals. Wrongful verdicts, threats and torture are critical threats to the system itself. The [victims’] descendants will hold us responsible.”
Surprisingly, senior legal officials – all senior Communist Party members – not only agreed but said that the situation could actually be worse. The vice chief of the Supreme People’s Court, Nguyen Son, testified that the use of torture by police has been steadily rising. Between 2011 and 2013, there were 10 cases involving 23 police officers accused of torture.
In the first eight months of 2014, there have been at least six such cases. The vice director of the Supreme People’s Procuracy, Nguyen Hai Phong, testified that the number of cases and defendants is likely much higher than officially reported.
Minister of Public Security Tran Dai Quang was more cautious in his testimony, though he did acknowledge that between 2011 and 2013 some 828 police had been accused of “infringing upon judicial activities,” including 23 who were charged with using corporal punishment. Nineteen officers had been relieved for torturing suspects, although Quang did not say if any had been charged.
There is clearly much room for improvement, as HRW and other rights groups have rightly reported. Tran Thi Bich Van, deputy Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, predictably played down HRW’s findings, saying in response that Vietnam’s signing of the United Nations treaty against torture and human rights showed the government’s “strong commitment to fighting the use and abuse of corporal punishment during criminal investigations and judicial proceedings.”
But the mere acknowledgement of the problem, let alone the high profile calls to ameliorate the situation and charge abusive cops before their actions further undermine the government’s grass roots legitimacy, suggests that the Communist Party leadership is acutely aware of public anger over the issue.
Police reform would be well received across the political spectrum, from liberals who want to improve the human and legal rights situation, to more conservative party members who fear further erosion of party legitimacy due to abuses perpetrated by low level officials. Many legal reformers are merely calling for a stricter following of the law. The VBA has called for lawyers to be allowed in the room while their clients are being interrogated, present when their clients sign confessions, and for courts to reject confessions that appear to be coerced.
On August 14, the head of the VBA signed a petition calling on the Minister of Public Security to annul or amend article 38 of Circular 28, which seems to give prosecutors more powers than they have under the criminal procedure code and limits lawyers from fulfilling their duties to their clients.
Members of the National Assembly, meanwhile, have called on the Ministry of Public Security to video or audio record all interrogations. One proposal is for courts to reject any defendant testimony that is not recorded. National Assembly members have also called for an amendment to the penal code to increase the sentence for torturing suspects; currently the maximum sentence is 15 years and is rarely meted out. They also want detailed statistics on the number of people who die in police custody.
None of these reforms, if implemented, would immediately alter the culture of abuse. But reforms in Vietnam are always piecemeal and understood in that context recent pronouncements indicate official recognition of one of the country’s most deep-seated problems.
Zachary Abuza, PhD, is principal at Southeast Asia Analytics specializing in regional politics and security issues.
(Copyright 2014 Zachary Abuza)