Vietnam: Widespread Police Brutality, Deaths in Custody

The Vietnamese government should promptly open thorough and transparent investigations into a series of deaths caused by the use of lethal force by policemen and hold the responsible officers accountable, Human Rights Watch said. 

Human Rights Watch has documented 19 incidents of reported police brutality, resulting in the deaths of 15 people, all reported in the state-controlled press in Vietnam during the last 12 months. The Vietnamese government should publicly recognize this problem, issue orders outlawing abusive treatment by police at all levels, and make clear that any police officers found responsible for such practices will face disciplinary action and, where appropriate, criminal prosecution, Human Rights Watch said.

“Police brutality is being reported at an alarming rate in every region of Vietnam, raising serious concerns that these abuses are both systemic and widespread,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

In some cases, detainees died after beatings inflicted while they were in the custody of the police or civil defense forces (dan phong). In other instances, victims were killed in public areas when police used what appears to have been excessive force. Many of these incidents provoked public protests throughout Vietnam during the past year.

Deaths of people in police custody or at the hands of police have been reported in provinces in the far north such as Bac Giang and Thai Nguyen, in major cities such as Hanoi and Da Nang, in Quang Nam along the central coast, in the remote highland province of Gia Lai, and in the southern provinces of Hau Giang and Binh Phuoc.

In many cases, those killed in detention were being held for minor infractions. For example, on June 30, 2010, Vu Van Hien of Thai Nguyen died in police custody after being detained following a dispute with his mother. An autopsy revealed that he died due to severe bleeding in the brain and that he had suffered multiple injuries, including a broken jawbone and broken ribs.

Three weeks later, on July 23, public protests erupted in Bac Giang in response to the death of 21-year-old Nguyen Van Khuong. He died just hours after being taken into police custody for riding a motorcycle without a helmet.

Local media coverage of these events has been uneven, raising continuing concerns about government control of the press in Vietnam. In some instances, media reports have led to investigations of police brutality cases that had previously been covered up. For example, a series of articles published by the newspaper Family and Society in February prompted the Justice Department in Hai Duong province to request further investigation into the suspicious death in custody of Dang Trung Trinh on November 28, 2009, which police had dismissed previously as a “death due to illness.”

On the other hand, there has been almost no local coverage of other key cases, such as the death of Nguyen Thanh Nam at Con Dau Parish in Da Nang. After participating in a funeral procession in Con Dau on May 4 to a cemetery located on disputed land slated for development by the government, Nam was summoned, interrogated, and beaten by Da Nang police several times. On July 2, Nam was severely beaten while in custody of the local civil defense force and left bound in a remote field. He died at home from his injuries on July 3.

Local residents who responded to telephone queries from Radio Free Asia said they were afraid to talk about the Con Dau case, especially the cause of Nam’s death. Government authorities have denied police culpability, stating that Nam died from a stroke. The official explanation has been rejected by members of Nam’s family, including his older brother in testimony before the US Congress on August 18.

“Rather than silencing the media or allowing journalists to publish only when given a green light, the Vietnamese government should step back and permit investigative reporting into these matters,” Robertson said. “Independent journalism can help bring to light abuses that local police and authorities hope to sweep under the carpet.”

In the 19 incidents of police brutality documented since September 2009, there are no reports that police officers were convicted by a court for their actions. In the majority of cases, higher officials have imposed minor punishments such as requiring offending officers to apologize to the victim’s family, accept transfer to another unit, or write a report about the incident for review by superiors.

In the few cases in which offending police officers have been suspended and/or detained pending investigations, such as the case in Bac Giang, the result appears to have been a response to pressure from public demonstrations against police brutality and exposés on independent internet sites that feature incriminating accounts by witnesses, photographs, videos, and blog reports.

“Many of these disturbing cases are no secret, and it is up to government ministries and Vietnam’s National Assembly to investigate,” Robertson said. “Until police get the message from all levels of government that they will be punished, there is little to stop them from this abusive behavior, including beating people to death.”

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