Police abuse and torture is rampant throughout one-party communist Vietnam, a U.S.-based rights group said Tuesday, citing a “surprisingly high number” of deaths in custody involving young detainees.
Abuses in 44 of Vietnam’s 58 provinces have been documented in a four-year study up to July this year, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said, calling on the authoritarian government in Hanoi to take action to end the “human rights crisis.”
“Police severely abused people in custody in every region of Vietnam,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at HRW, in the report entitled “Public Insecurity: Deaths in Custody and Police Brutality in Vietnam.”
“The Vietnam government has a human rights crisis on its hands and should investigate and start holding abusive police accountable.”
In the cases of deaths in custody, police frequently provided causes “that strained credulity and gave the appearance of systematic cover-ups,” said the report, which draws on HRW’s review of abuse cases reported by state media, independent bloggers, citizen journalists, and foreign news agencies.
“A surprisingly large number of people—many of them young and healthy in their 20s and 30s—allegedly died from medical problems in custody,” the report said.
Police also alleged that dozens of otherwise mentally and physically healthy people committed suicide by hanging or other methods, it said.
Many of those HRW said were “killed” in police custody were held for minor infractions, such as neighborhood disputes or alleged traffic violations and petty theft.
Injuries in police custody were also frequently reported throughout the country.
According to the report, a number of survivors said they had been beaten to extract confessions, sometimes for crimes they did not commit, while others said they were abused for criticizing the police or trying to reason with them.
Victims of beatings also included children and people with mental disabilities, it said.
First public hearing
HRW’s report follows Vietnam’s first public hearing to consider measures to stamp out police brutality and make it harder for interrogators to resort to torture and coercion, according to state media.
Last week, Truong Trong Nghia, vice chairman of the Vietnam Bar Association, condemned police brutality as a threat to the integrity and stability of the nation during a hearing held by the National Assembly's (parliament’s) Justice Commission, the Thanh Nien News reported.
“Torture still exists; [investigators] treat suspects like their enemies rather than their equals,” the paper reported him as saying.
“Wrongful verdicts, threats and torture are critical threats to the system itself. The [victims'] descendants will hold us responsible.”
During the recent National Assembly session, the chairman of the Vietnam Bar Association Le Thuc Anh said the nation's maximum punishment for torturing a suspect in the course of an investigation—15 years in prison—is too lenient.
Sending a message
HRW said that local media coverage of the incidents in its report had been “uneven” and may have been restricted due to government controls, adding that in some cases journalists had been prevented from approaching the families of victims by local authorities.
Robertson said that the government should permit the media to investigate and report news about official abuses, which could help deter would-be perpetrators.
“Independent journalism could help expose abuses that otherwise would be swept under the carpet,” he said.
But he said that the government must also get tough on prosecuting police officers who commit serious transgressions, but rarely face consequences for their actions.
According to HRW, in many cases in which abuses are officially acknowledged, police officers face only light internal disciplinary procedures, such as criticisms or warnings.
“Vietnam should promptly open an impartial investigation for every accusation of police brutality, and take strong action when the evidence reveals abuse,” Robertson said.
“Until police get a loud and clear message from the top levels of government that abuse won’t be tolerated, there will be no security for ordinary people who fall into police hands.”
HRW called on the Vietnamese government to “immediately adopt a zero-tolerance policy for abuse by police,” provide better training for police at all levels, and install cameras in interrogation and detention facilities.
It said the government should also promote access to legal counsel for suspects and detainees, and ensure freedom of expression for journalists and on the Internet.
Other recommendations included forming an independent police complaints commission to review and investigate all reported police abuse and misconduct, and provide high-level support for impartial investigations and prosecutions of those acts.
It called on United Nations agencies and international donors assisting Vietnam to intervene to end police abuse in the country.
“There should be a concerted outcry to press for government action to end police abuses,” Robertson said.