A court in Vietnam on Thursday convicted five police officers for their roles in the beating death of a criminal suspect during an interrogation, according to a lawyer representing the man’s family, but the wife of the victim called the relatively lenient sentences an “outrage” and vowed to appeal the verdict.
The People’s Court in Phu Yen province’s Tuy Hoa city sentenced the police officers under Article 289 of Vietnam’s Penal Code for the “use of corporal punishment in an investigation” in beating then-30-year-old Ngo Thanh Kieu to death with rubber batons in March 2012.
Kieu had been handcuffed to a chair at the local police station in Tuy Hoa and was undergoing interrogation as a suspected member of a theft ring at the time of his death.
Police officer Nguyen Than Thao Thanh, who was accused of delivering the fatal blow in the beating, received five years in prison, while fellow officers Nguyen Minh Quyen and Pham Ngoc Man were handed two-year and one-and-a-half-year sentences, respectively, lawyer Vo An Don said after the announcement.
Officers Nguyen Tan Quang and Do Nhu Huy both received suspended sentences of one year and two months each, Don told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
Conviction under Article 289 carries a maximum prison sentence of 12 years.
Kieu’s wife Tran Thi Tam told RFA that the announcement had shocked supporters who expected more severe punishments for the defendants.
“People at the trial were outraged and we have no faith in law enforcement anymore,” Tam said.
In a trial held last week at the Tuy Hoa People’s Court, Procurator Ngo Thi Hong Minh had proposed a jail sentence of five to five and a half years for Thao Thanh and suspended sentences for his four fellow officers.
It is rare for a court in Vietnam to depart from the sentences proposed by the prosecution.
Tam vowed to appeal to appeal to a higher court, but added that “our hopes aren’t high because we think it will probably uphold the sentence.”
Lawyer Don said that Kieu’s supporters were “very upset” and “couldn’t understand how the court could deliver such a verdict.”
“The person who decided this verdict is very daring to ignore the law and public opinion to do so,” he said.
“This verdict was not handled according to the law,” he said.
Don also took issue with the prosecution’s refusal to summon deputy chief of city police Le Duc Hoan, who had ordered Kieu’s arrest and interrogation, to last week’s trial.
Hoan should be responsible for the actions of his subordinates while Kieu was in their custody, he said.
But the prosecution had not summoned Hoan because he “came from a good family and has served in his job well,” Don said.
According to Tam, Kieu was arrested at his home at 3:00 p.m. on March 13, 2012 without a warrant and taken to the police station in Tuy Hoa on Hoan’s orders.
Tam told RFA that her husband was killed around 5:00 p.m. the same day, but said she was only notified four hours later.
Duong Noi farmers
Also on Thursday, the wife of one of two farmers involved in a land dispute, who police said committed suicide last week at a detention center in the capital Hanoi, disclosed that they had left behind statements expressing concern that they would be tortured or even face the prospect of death while in custody.
Farmers Tran Van Mien, aged around 55, and Tran Van Sang, aged around 39, were arrested by police on March 26 from Duong Noi precinct in Hanoi’s Ha Dong district and taken to the city’s Detention Center No. 1, according to Mien’s wife Nhan, who received a warrant from authorities that evening.
On March 29, police informed the families of the two men that they had committed suicide in custody by biting off their own tongues.
Nhan said that news of the deaths of Mien and Sang had concerned their fellow residents of Duong Noi—around 350 households which have held out since 2009 against eviction by the Hanoi city government from land earmarked for the development of two new townships in the area.
“We were very worried to hear that, so we went to the police station to ask for more information,” she said.
According to Nhan, the two men had been summoned by the Ha Dong police in January this year for their involvement in a protest against the government land grab and, after they were released, had expressed concern that they would be formally arrested.
Both of them had drawn up “power of attorney” documents later that month for their families which stated that they were in good physical health and of sound mind, suggesting that if they died in police custody it would be the result of torture rather than illness or suicide, she said.
Additionally, they had requested that the residents of Duong Noi “fight for justice” if the two were to die in custody.
In a passage from Sang’s statement, which Nhan provided to RFA, Sang called the summons by the Ha Dong police “baseless, because I did not do anything wrong or harm anybody,” adding that authorities had not provided any documentation of his alleged “disturbing the public order.”
“I authorize the people … of Duong Noi to do the following on my behalf, in case I am arrested, detained, tortured, or poisoned while in police custody,” the statement said.
“If I do not return home after seeing the police, the people of … Duong Noi will go ask for my release and demand clarification from the Ha Dong police station,” it said.
“If I am tortured or injured or even die while in [police] custody, [the people of Duong Noi] will ask for my body and carry it to all relevant government offices and the National Assembly (Vietnam’s rubber-stamp parliament) to demand justice for me and others who have suffered the same fate.”
Hundreds of Duong Noi farmers went to the Ha Dong police station to demand clarification after learning of the deaths, but authorities would not meet with them, Nhan said, adding that they were harassed by “thugs” throwing trash.
Rash of custody deaths
Several cases of deaths in police custody have been reported in Vietnam in recent years, many of which authorities have attributed to suicide.
In its annual country report on Vietnam, New York-based Human Rights Watch said that it had received information on several cases of police abuse, torture, and the killing of detainees in the Southeast Asian nation during 2013.
Vietnam is “finalizing steps” to ratify within 2014 the United Nations Convention against Torture, which it signed in 2013.
Reported by Mac Lam for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.