Police Brutality in Vietnam

Just at an inconvenient time when Vietnam is seeking a pact with the United States for the supply of weapons, an inconvenient and exhaustive report on police brutality and “public insecurity” in Vietnam released by the New York-based Human Rights Watch has brought to light "extensive" abuses in the judiciary system.

The report alleges at least 24 deaths in police custody between 2010 and 2014 and innumerable beatings. For 14 of the deaths, the authorities have admitted culpability; the other 10 were put down to illness or suicide. Human Rights Watch says this is the first major survey of its kind, though the organization did not speak directly with those harmed for fear of further repercussions.

US Sens. John McCain and Sheldon Whitehouse in August said they would push the US Congress to lift the ban on the sale of lethal weapons to the Southeast Asian nation. Other human rights campaigners are expected to put pressure on both the US and Vietnam to try to force Hanoi to clean up its act as far as treatment of both dissidents and common citizens. Publicity over the Human Rights Watch report should help their case.

Much information in the report came from state-supervised media, though the report notes that journalists and newspapers face issues due to the sensitive nature of the subject.

The Hanoi regime is regularly attacked for its poor human rights record. Since Myanmar has liberalized, some foreign commentators have suggested that Vietnam is now the worst in the region for human rights.

Most often when human rights are discussed or brought up during, say, an official US visit, the focus is freedom of speech, the arrests of dissidents and freedom of information. Mentioned only in passing if at all are many other rights, for example the right to not be beaten to death by the police for a minor infraction such as riding pillion on a scooter with no helmet.

Police corruption, brutality and inefficiency are a tedious, sometimes costly or even bloody, fact for the majority of Vietnamese citizens. The 2013 US State Department report on human rights reads: “Specific human rights abuses included continued police mistreatment of suspects... including the use of lethal force as well as austere prison conditions... Political influence, endemic corruption, and inefficiency continued to distort the judicial system significantly.”

Bloggers and dissidents often raise such issues. However their concerns are often secondary to their imprisonment for outsiders condemning the regime's rights record. Former Communist Party member Vi Duc Hoi from northern Lang Son province wrote a fictionalized account of the arrest, then the beating and death of 21-year-old Nguyen Van Khuong in Bac Giang province outside Hanoi in 2010. It was not a rash act of dissent; local media had widely covered the young man’s death and there had been a large protest during his funeral procession. For this and other infractions Hoi received an eight year sentence, later commuted to five.

Khuong’s was not the only death which made headlines in Vietnam's mainstream press and sparked outrage. In 2011 53-year-old Trinh Xuan Tung was involved in an altercation at the large Giap Bat bus station in Hanoi after police tried to fine his motorbike taxi driver for allowing his passenger to remove his helmet.

A scuffle quickly turned serious and Tung, identified by Agence France-Presse as a seller of songbirds, complained of paralysis when his daughter who visited him in custody; Tung died eight days later. The daughter, Trinh Kim Tien, protested and hung banners outside the family shop to protest her father’s innocence and later carried her protest online. .

The US State Department reported nine deaths in custody for the previous year alone. In most cases if policemen are actually t prosecuted it is not for murder, a capital offense, but for lesser charges, and they receive relatively brief sentences.

Another political rights issue which has concerned bloggers and citizens alike - and at times top-level members of the government - has been land grabs and evictions. In early 2012 a fish farmer Doan Van Vuon repulsed the legion of police who stormed his land to evict him and his family with homemade firearms.

There were over 100 police and while Vuon and family members did eventually face trial (firearms are very much frowned upon in Vietnam) it highlighted the land grabs and corruption in the country and that the police force could, and would, enforce illegal grabs at the expense of ordinary citizens.

The public overwhelmingly supported Vuon,unsettling the government enough that Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung ordered an enquiry, which eventually did uncover large irregularities in the land case. A number of local officials were punished, but Vuon was not compensated for the fish stocks looted under police supervision or the family home they razed.

In another land protest outside Hanoi a few months later, 1,000 villagers faced off against some 3,000 members of the canh sat co dong, or mobile police, known for their dark olive uniforms, riot gear and AK47s. Footage quickly made it to YouTube and provoked similar outrage. The government suggested that the whole event had been staged by “hostile forces” (a go-to descriptive) which would suggest that democracy activists have access to significantly more resources and better actors than the state's official film body.

These two cases at least feature men who are recognizably representatives of the state, even if they remain largely unaccountable. Often young men not officially employed by the state (and sometimes not employed much at all), a kind of ‘village militia’, are used to intimidate farmers who won’t give up land or to break up protests over land or factory wages.

In August this year the government did go some way to changing things. HRW and other rights organizations have cautiously welcomed Circular 28, issued by the Ministry of Public Security and titled “Regulating the Conduct of Criminal investigations by the People’s Public Security.” It's regarded as an improvement but is still somewhat piecemeal, with some holes or irregularities (such as classifying suspects as criminals). It prohibits “obtaining coerced statements... or using corporal punishment”.

One expert source who spoke with Asia Sentinel on conditions of absolute anonymity said, “When young people are arrested for actual crimes, torture is standard. Police 'soften up' the accused with beatings, and all police stations keep electric weapons to terrify prisoners and make people confess -- even if they have done nothing wrong.”

However the source also noted that despite widespread violence, Hanoi has shown some political will to improve the situation, although it is “high levels of government” who wish to see reform.

While in a hierarchical political system such as Vietnam’s orders from the top can travel down quickly, their implementation at the bottom levels, especially outside major cities, can take time. It is often, as HRW has noted, the lowest-level commune police who are the perpetrators and who also need the most training.

Vietnam's citizens share a pervasive dread of attracting the attention of its police. Political dissidents run particular risks, of course, but virtually anyone who steps out of line is vulnerable. Stories of police shakedowns and brutality circulate widely, and in recent years have surfaced frequently in the state-supervised media and become endemic in blogs and social media posts.

The government has already condemned the report via the ministry of Foreign Affairs in the English-language, state media. This is no surprise; a report by the UN Special Rapporteur on religious freedom he other month received the same treatment. However stiffer penalties are being handed down and one police chief received a 17-year sentence whilst his inferiors were all given six to 12 years.

The vice chairman of the Vietnam Bar Association Truong Trong Nghia told a hearing by the parliamentary Justice Commission, “Torture still exists; [investigators] treat suspects like their enemies rather than their equals. Wrongful verdicts, threats and torture pose critical threats to the regime itself. The [victims'] descendants will hold us responsible.”

Will the HRW report make a difference? The expert source thinks so: “They (the government) will be very unhappy with the report, but they will pay attention.”

Helen Clark is an Australia-based freelancer who has spent extensive time in Vietnam studying the human rights situation