Police forces in Vietnam regularly commit acts of brutality and have killed detainees in their custody, Human Rights Watch has found. HRW documented police abuse in 44 Vietnamese provinces in a new report, “Public Insecurity: Deaths in Custody and Police Brutality in Vietnam.” The report was compiled from state media reports, and writings from citizen journalists, bloggers, and foreign media, and focuses on abuses that took place between August 2010 to July 2014. HRW focused on brutality that occurred when prisoners were arrested, questioned at police stations, and during pretrial detention, as opposed to abuses committed in prisons.
The report notes that prisoners who died in police custody were often jailed for minor offenses. HRW said police forces “frequently provided causes for these deaths that strained credulity and gave the appearance of systematic cover-ups. The police alleged that dozens of otherwise mentally and physically healthy people committed suicide by hanging or other methods.” The report covers 10 instances in which people died in police custody, and includes photos of their beaten bodies. HRW also includes suspicious deaths and alleged suicides.
One of the alleged suicides was Hoang Van Ngai. The report quotes his brother, Hoang Van Ta, as saying that police would not let him in the emergency room where his brother was being treated and authorized an autopsy without consulting the family. Hoang Van Ngai’s death was classified as a suidice by police, though a photo of his body shows bruises and welts all over his arms and back.
Only a handful of deaths discussed here received extensive newspaper coverage—
usually when victims’ families actively sought justice and spoke to the media.
Most deaths were only briefly noted in the local press, if at all. Given
enduring constraints on press freedom in Vietnam, there is no doubt that there
are many more cases of abuse than are reported here.
The report indicates that cover-ups are rampant, and that police often give multiple versions of what happened when prisoners die in their custody. In the April case of Nguyen Cong Nhut, police said the man hung himself but then backtracked and said he had never been arrested at all. They said he volunteered to stay at the station to help them solve a workplace theft case. In several cases in which people in their 20s or 30s had died, police attributed their deaths to pulmonary edemas, which are rare among people their age.
HRW reported that, “The number of alleged suicides in police custody is so high that a number of land rights activists have prepared living wills,
affirming that they are in good physical and mental health and have no intention of committing suicide should they be arrested by the police.”
Many reported that they were beaten and coerced into admitting to crimes that they did not commit. People are often arrested and beaten after being accused of minor offenses such as not wearing helmets or starting fights at soccer games.
Media reports referenced for the HRW report were inconsistent, leading to concerns that the government stifles reporting human rights abuses. Vietnamese bloggers have been arrested several times in recent years, including Nguyen Huu Vinh and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy, who were jailed for “abusing democratic freedoms.”
Though the problem is widespread, the brutality continues because, “In most cases, police implicated in abuse were not disciplined, or received extremely light punishments given the seriousness of their crimes. Some were subsequently promoted.” HRW cited three factors in the abusive police culture: the police force’s identification as “a political instrument for safeguarding communist power against hostile domestic and foreign forces;” neglect of the Commune Police, a force that deals with the rural population but lacks training and incentives for exemplary or improved behavior; and a lack of strong legal standards or culture.
HRW made several recommendations to the Vietnamese government, including a call for the country’s leadership to enforce a change in police culture that deems ” torture, beatings, or any other form of mistreatment in police custody” unacceptable. The organization recommended that the state establsh a police complaints commission and units to investigate allegations of police brutality and misconduct. It also said police should be forced to videotape interrogations to discourage torture of detainees, and that journalists who expose police abuse should be protected. HRW’s final recommendation implored the Vietnamese government to ratify the United Nations Convention against Torture
and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.