At a Ho Chi Minh City intersection, a traffic cop wrestled a motorcyclist to the ground, kicking him in the chest. A video of the sunny April day in District 1 made its rounds on social media with thousands of netizens dissecting the violent scene.
But behind the closed doors of Vietnam’s police stations, violence can be more extreme. Torture is a norm to force confession and in some cases leads to death. These fatalities are often labelled as suicide or sudden illness, as detailed in a 2014 Human Rights Watch report.
The public security ministry reported 226 deaths in detention from October 2011 to September 2014.
Trinh Huu Long, co-founder of Legal Initiatives for Vietnam, a Taiwan-based nonprofit promoting democracy, said police brutality is experienced directly or indirectly by many Vietnamese. Although a common societal ill, the police force is a closed system above reprimand.
“The problem goes beyond individual conduct of the police,” Long noted. “The justice system’s design almost always guarantees police brutality: no independent judiciary, no independent oversight from the Congress, the media, the civil society and detention centres are under the supervision of the very state organ that investigates crimes: the Ministry of Public Security.”
Torture as an interrogation technique is driven by the rat race in Vietnam’s police force where there is constant pressure to close cases quickly to get promoted, said Le Cong Dinh, a lawyer and human rights advocate who was jailed and then put under house arrest for critiquing Vietnam’s ruling one-party government. Instead of investigating the evidence, police force their understanding of the crime onto a suspect.
“If they rejected to cooperate with the police the result would be torture,” Dinh said. “That’s why some were tortured to death… The police try to hide the true facts of such cases. They try to explain in a different way about their death.”
Vietnam’s criminal procedure code does little to protect those in custody when rights afforded to citizens are “only the law on paper,” Dinh said, adding that families of those killed in custody are often intimidated to keep quiet and speaking out can lead to arrest.
There are currently 205 jailed activists in Vietnam, many of whom have been charged with “spreading anti-state propaganda,” according to The 88 Project, a nonprofit organisation promoting freedom of expression in Vietnam.
The police force is an arm of the Ministry of Public Security whose “officials hold some of the most powerful positions in the ruling Communist Party,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia Division.
“No one should forget that the first duty of the police is to defend the primacy of the Communist Party in all matters,” Robertson added. “Ensuring justice for police abuses is not even on the chart.”
The Ministry of Information and Communications did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Although government officials from Vietnam’s 63 provinces have brought the issue of police custody deaths to meetings of the National Assembly in the country’s capital, Hanoi, the fatalities have been swept under the rug.
“Many delegates from several provinces in Vietnam make a lot of reports to the National Assembly asking the Minister of Public Security to answer questions about deaths in police custody,” Dinh said. “The minister tries to cover their faults and blame victims.”
The motive for coverups by top ministry officials is self-interest and protecting the police force’s crumbling reputation, according to Dinh: “They understand well that most people in Vietnam don’t like the police officials anymore so that’s why if anything is wrong they try to hide the information.”
Ensuring justice for police abuses is not even on the chart”Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia Division
For high-ranking ministry officials, ensuring their positions is paramount, Dinh said, noting that upper-level government seats are “usually expensive to buy,” incentivising appointees to avoid admissions of wrongdoing that would make them vulnerable.
“They don’t want an enemy to attack them and take over their chair or position,” Dinh said. “That’s why all the time someone under their supervision will try to help them cover it up.”
Along with evidence suppression and jailing protesters, Dinh worried that a new addition to Vietnam’s criminal procedure code may have worsened violence at police stations.
Beginning in 2015, those suspected of committing crimes are allowed to have a lawyer present during interrogations even for small infractions. However, Dinh noted this law has not improved the situation for criminal suspects.
Police officers rarely allow individuals to have lawyers present and may become increasingly violent to shield their interrogation techniques. If individuals refuse to accept police versions of events or continue to ask for lawyers, the violence may escalate. “Because of that law the deaths in custody [may have] increased even more than before,” Dinh said.
Prosecution officers also can review legal aspects of police investigations but often work in cahoots with the public security ministry, he claimed.
“Most of the time the prosecution officers operate with the police to fix the investigation results,” Dinh said. “There’s no mechanism to supervise the police, so the police can do whatever they want.”
Robertson of Human Rights Watch agreed.
“Police have total impunity to beat and torture suspects while pursuing a confession, regardless of whether the person actually did what they are accused of, and when they go too far and the person dies from their injuries, that same impunity applies,” Robertson said. “The police really are a closed, unaccountable system protected by the Ministry of Public Security.”
A Vietnamese man who said his father and grandfather worked in the police force provided an inside view of its culture. “They protect each other and have a sort of implicit understanding to look away from each other’s wrongdoing,” said the man in his early 30s, who asked to withhold his name for his protection.
He has collected news reports going back to 1993 of suspicious deaths in police custody. The fatalities reported by local news outlets include: “Hanging by the thread of his own shirt,” “death by hanging in the restroom of a police station,” the death of a man who “police claimed plunged his head into the table and hurt himself,” “death by crashing his head into the wall of a police station,” “death by hanging using a phone cord at the police station,” “death by jumping off the third floor of a police station” and many more.
A considerable percentage of Vietnamese suspects are tortured by officers, a smaller amount are wrongfully convicted and a fraction of abusive actions are captured on camera and reported by journalists, he claimed.
“Without rigorous data collection and open and easy access to police records we may never know the exact number, but we all know it’s there,” he said.
Part of the longstanding culture of police brutality is social acceptance of violence as punishment, he said, pointing to prominent cases of child abuse. These acts showcase a mentality of violence as an acceptable method to control children and, from the state’s perspective, the citizenry at large.
“Public opinion toward punitive justice… is part of the justification for this kind of police violence,” he said. “That’s connected to how we treat children.”
Some who have dared to criticise the police have been harshly punished.
Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh began blogging under the pen name Mẹ Nấm, or Mother Mushroom, to keep a diary for her daughter, nicknamed Nấm. Quynh began noticing the ill-treatment of poor citizens when she went to the hospital for checkups. The topics of her writing shifted to freedom of expression, environmental degradation, Chinese expansion and police violence.
Quynh described the case of Trinh Xuan Tung, who was pulled over in 2011 for not wearing a helmet while a motorbike passenger. Despite explaining he hadn’t yet put his helmet back on after answering a phone call, police punched, clubbed and kicked Tung, according to Human Rights Watch. The 53-year-old was taken to a police station and chained to a chair even though he vomited. Tung’s family rushed to the station, where police refused to transport him to a hospital until he passed out hours later. He was diagnosed with a broken neck.
“He didn’t wake up,” Quynh said. “One week later he passed away.”
Quynh contacted Tung’s daughter, Trinh Kim Tien, who was in her early 20s when her father was killed. At Quynh’s urging, Tien obtained a lawyer and began publicly speaking about her father’s death. About a year later the case’s lead officer, Nguyen Van Ninh, was sentenced to four years in prison for “causing death while on official duty.”
Robertson said that degree of police accountability is rare: “Such instances only happen when the incident becomes something much larger and the higher-level authorities decide to seek a way to appease community anger.”
“We had a long journey toward that sentence and we weren’t satisfied,” said Quynh, who began working with Tien to document police violence cases and organise “human-rights coffee sessions” in Quynh’s hometown, coastal Nha Trang. Local police ultimately shut down the events and arrested four activists including Quynh.
In 2014, Quynh published a report titled “Stop police killing citizens” on Mạng Lưới Blogger Việt Nam, a network for Vietnamese to report human rights abuses. The report summarised information on 31 deaths in police custody. Dinh said Quynh’s documentation was “a landmark in Vietnam.”
Quynh explained fear and a variety of police methods to keep citizens silent are primary obstacles to change. She noted police often tell families that the deaths of their loved ones were “unfortunate” incidents while blaming the victim for breaking the law. In other cases, she said they use bribery to ensure silence.
“[Victims’ families] don’t want to ask for justice because they don’t want to be followed or they don’t want to be paid attention to by the police,” she said.
Quynh was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2016 for “conducting propaganda against the state.” Her documentation of police violence was used as part of the evidence against her. She served two years before being extradited to the United States, where she continues her activism online.
“I’m still thinking about how to make my fellow citizens less afraid of the police and raise their voices,” Quynh said.
While there have been limited cases in which police were reprimanded, suspended or lost jobs, there will be no large-scale change. The police have total impunity, the public cannot push for reform and authorities, the government and ruling party have no incentive to address the issue, Robertson said.
“There is no systematic demand for change from society because the Vietnamese people are not empowered in any meaningful way to challenge the system,” Robertson said. “Deaths in police custody consistently happen year in and year out in Vietnam and coverups framed on pretty weak excuses are a part of that.”