Capital Punishment in Vietnam and Ho Duy Hai
Deep concerns abound that skewed system results in deaths of innocents
By: Tuan V. Nguyen
On January 13, 2008, the case of two female postal workers found murdered inside a post office in Vietnam’s Long An Province, Vietnam at first appeared to be cut and dried. The chief suspect was Nguyen Van Nghi, a lover of one of the victims who was seen at the scene of the crime shortly before it took place. Nghi ran away but was soon arrested at his mother’s home.
At that point, the case ceased to be cut and dried, however, and instead has become a cause for concern about Vietnam’s justice system and a preoccupation for international human rights and legal reform organizations.
That is because Nguyen Van Nghi was freed and the evidence against him mysteriously disappeared. More than two months later, on March 21, a youth named Ho Duy Hai was arrested and taken into police custody despite having a credible alibi. Eight months later, on November 28, Hai was sentenced to death by a local court, largely because of the statement he made in police custody that he had killed the women. On April 29, 2009, an appellate court in Ho Chi Minh City upheld the death sentence.
But Hai later repudiated the confession, saying it had been beaten out of him during marathon questioning and that he was coerced to write the confession, which was prepared by a local policeman who subsequently died of a car accident.
As the case has meandered through Vietnamese courts for the past 12 years, it has come to exemplify a system that is regarded as deeply flawed. Between 1992 and 2002, according to Vietnam National University academics in Hanoi 625,603 defendants were tried for various offenses, with 1,563 sentenced to death.
In 2018 alone, criminal courts sentenced 122 persons, or 1.26 per 1 million population – 8.3 times higher than the United States for the same year. Moreover, during 2018, Vietnam executed at least 85 persons, 3.5 times higher than the number of US executions.
The high level of death sentences and executions has attracted international attention. Amnesty International notes that over the past 10 years, while executions have declined globally, the number in Vietnam has actually increased. The question is why.
Since his first trial in 2008, Hai and his family have maintained that he was innocent, and that he was wrongly convicted. Certainly, his confession was inconsistent with the evidence. No murder weapons were found. Instead, a knife and a chopping board bought from the local market were displayed as the weapons he had allegedly used. His DNA didn’t match the blood found at the crime scene, no witnesses could testify that he was at the crime scene, evidence indicated that the murderer was left-handed person and Hai is right-handed.
Fast forward to 2019, the Secretary General of Amnesty International Norway sent an appeal letter with 25,543 signatories to President Nguyen Phu Trong urging him to quash Hai’s death sentence. On November 22, 2019, the Supreme People’s Procuracy formally asked for a 'Cassation trial’ – in effect Vietnam’s Supreme Court.
However, on May 8, 2020, the 17-member Judicial Committee the Supreme People’s Court, under the chairmanship of Nguyen Hoa Binh, a member of the Communist Party Central Committee, upheld Hai’s death sentence, effectively denying the petition to the Supreme People’s Procuracy.
However, the public at large, many attorneys and journalists and members of the National Assembly have pointed out that the cassation trial was procedurally flawed. Luu Binh Nhuong, a prominent national assembly member, pointed out that the trial and its Judicial Committee violated the fundamental principle of presumption of innocence. More seriously, the critics accused the chair of the Judicial Committee, Nguyen Hoa Binh, of conflict of interest in that he was previously Director of the Supreme People’s Procuracy who rejected Hai’s appeal for a retrial. Taken together, the critics say, the entire cassation trial was corrupted.
In fact, all of Hai’s trials have been seriously flawed. Although there was no physical or verifiable evidence other than his confession in police custody, under Vietnam law a confession cannot constitute the sole evidence for conviction. Yet, all three courts – the district court, the court of appeal and the supreme court based their judgment on Hai's confession and ignored all inconsistent evidentiary facts.
Rights organizations and a wide range of other critics charge that Hai is the victim of a grave miscarriage of justice because he has not received a fair trial by any national and international standards. At present, he is technically on death row, as legal options for saving him are extremely limited. His life is now dependent on the outcome of an appeal to the State President Nguyen Phu Trong.
Legal scholars have observed that Hai’s case exemplifies the flaws in Vietnam’s death penalty and legal system, which in many respects is similar to China’s, where numerous people have been wrongly executed due largely to few or non-existent due process protections. Vietnam, like China, relies heavily on confession in death penalty cases.
Hai’s case and many previous wrongful convictions have exposed deeply-rooted flaws in Vietnam's criminal justice system. Most elites, even those within the Communist Party, agree that judicial reform is badly needed. However, the future of reform looks bleak when the judicial system is controlled by the party, and this fact alone runs contrary to the rule of law in international courts.
Dr. Tuan V. Nguyen is a freelance commentator currently living in Sydney, Australia.