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The family of Trinh Xuan Tung (his mother Nguyen Thi Cuc, his wife Nguyen Thi Mien, and his two daughters Trinh Kim Tien and Trinh Cam Tu) outside the court on July 17, 2012, waiting to attend appellate proceedings in the trial of former Col. Nguyen Van Ninh, convicted of causing Trinh Xuan Tung’s death. The poster features a picture of the perpetrator and slogans calling on authorities to impose a longer prison term.  © 2012 Dan Lam Bao & contributors

(Bangkok) – Police throughout Vietnam abuse people in their custody, in some cases leading to death, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The Vietnamese government should take immediate action to end suspicious deaths in custody and torture of detainees by police, Human Rights Watch said.

The 96 page report, “Public Insecurity: Deaths in Custody and Police Brutality in Vietnam,” highlights cases of police brutality that resulted in deaths and serious injuries of people in custody between August 2010 and July 2014. Human Rights Watch documented abuses in 44 of Vietnam’s 58 provinces, throughout the country and in all five of the country’s major cities.

“Police severely abused people in custody in every region of Vietnam,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The Vietnam government has a human rights crisis on its hands and should investigate and start holding abusive police accountable.”

The report draws on Human Rights Watch’s review of police abuse cases reported in government controlled Vietnamese-language newspapers, as well as reports from independent bloggers, citizen-journalists, and foreign news agencies. Many of the accounts included in this report have never before been published in English. Human Rights Watch also conducted research in Vietnam for this report but decided to not interview victims and witnesses there because doing so would have exposed them to almost certain retaliation.

In many cases, those killed in police custody were being held for minor infractions. In an August 2012 case, police beat Nguyen Mau Thuan to death in Hanoi after arresting him less than three hours earlier in relation to a minor dispute in his neighborhood. In August 2010, police beat and tear-gassed Le Phuc Hung to death in Gia Lai province while holding him for allegedly stealing water pipes.

Police 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. In other cases, only a vague and unconvincing explanation was given, as in the case of Nguyen Van Duc in Vinh Long province, who according to an autopsy died from hematoma in the brain and other injuries. Police attributed his injuries to doctors who were “too hard with their hands” during emergency treatment. A surprisingly large number of people—many of them young and healthy in their 20s and 30s—allegedly died from medical problems in custody. Injuries in police custody are also reported frequently throughout the country.

A number of survivors said they were beaten to extract confessions, sometimes for crimes they maintained they did not commit. In July 2013, Soc Trang province police beat and forced six men to confess to a murder. Others said they were beaten for criticizing police officers or trying to reason with them. Victims of beatings also included children and people with mental disabilities.

Local media coverage of these incidents has been uneven, raising serious concerns about the negative impact of government control of the media. In some instances, media reports were extensive and detailed, exposing conflicting police statements and misconduct, such as in the case of Nguyen Cong Nhut, an alleged “suicide” who died in custody in April 2011 in Binh Duong province. On the other hand, there was no media coverage of other key cases, such as the death of Hoang Van Ngai, an ethnic Hmong, in March 2013 in Dak Nong province. Journalists reported that in some cases local authorities had prevented them from approaching the families of victims for interviews.

“Vietnam should permit the media to do its job of investigating and reporting the news about official abuses,” Robertson said. "Independent journalism could help expose abuses that otherwise would be swept under the carpet.”

Officers who commit serious, even lethal, transgressions rarely face serious consequences. In many cases in which abuses are officially acknowledged police officers face only light internal disciplinary procedures, such as criticisms or warnings. Demotions, transfers, or dismissals of offending officers are rare, and prosecutions and convictions even rarer. Even when they are prosecuted and convicted, police officers tend to receive light or suspended sentences.

In one case, a police officer was even promoted after committing abuses. In July 2010, deputy chief Nguyen Huu Khoa of La Phu commune (Hoai Duc district, Hanoi) was accused of beating a truck driver named Nguyen Phu Son. It was unclear how the case was investigated and handled, but by December 2010, Nguyen Huu Khoa had been promoted to chief.

“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,”

In several of the cases, Human Rights Watch found that police arrested people based on vague suspicions without supporting evidence, and then beat them to elicit confessions. Police also routinely ignored basic procedures to safeguard citizens against ill-treatment or arbitrary detention and prevented lawyers and legal consultants from gaining immediate access to their clients.

“All persons detained should be granted immediate and unhindered access to their lawyer in order to minimize possible police abuse during interrogation,” said Robertson.

The Vietnam government should immediately adopt a zero-tolerance policy for abuse by police, provide better training for police at all levels, particularly commune police, and install cameras in interrogation and detention facilities. The government also should facilitate the role of legal counsel for suspects and detainees and ensure freedom of expression for journalists and in the internet.

The government should also form an independent police complaints commission to review and investigate all reported police abuse and misconduct and provide high-level support for prompt and impartial investigations and prosecutions of police abuse and misconduct.

“UN agencies and international donors assisting Vietnam establish the rule of law shouldn’t allow these punishing police practices to continue,” Robertson said. “There should be a concerted outcry to press for government action to end police abuses.”

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