Two lawyers advising the family of a young man who died in police custody on his case were brutally attacked by a group of thugs wearing masks in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi Tuesday, leaving them bloody and bruised, according to one of the victims.
Lawyers Tran Thu Nam and Le Van Luan were meeting with the family of Do Dang Du—a 17-year-old who was declared dead by authorities on Oct. 10 after more than a month in detention—when they were assaulted by eight unidentified men, Luan told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
“We went to see the family to attend to some legal procedures and when we left the house, eight young guys wearing masks attacked us,” Luan said about an hour after the assault, which took place around 2:45 p.m.
“We both were left bleeding, though Tran Thu Nam was beaten more severely. He bled from his nose, eyes and mouth,” he said, adding that the attackers had also taken their cell phones.
Do Thi Mai, Du’s mother, also witnessed the attack.
“They came to help us after [Du] died in custody,” she said of the two lawyers.
“Initially, there were two people standing at our gate. After the lawyers left—about 100 meters (330 feet) from the house—they were attacked.”
Later, while awaiting treatment at a local hospital, Nam noted that “other people were also attacked when they tried to help Du’s family,” referring to a group of rights activists who were harassed and beaten when they went to pay tribute to Du at his burial.
The lawyer suggested that he and Luan had been the target of an attack meant to dissuade them from taking the case.
“I don't know why [the thugs] attacked me, because I have no conflict with anyone,” he said.
“However … I did send a complaint [to the People's Procuratorate and bar association] about the Hanoi police giving me difficulties [about Du’s case] and I am writing a report to send to the United Nations Human Rights Council [asking them to launch an independent investigation].”
Death in custody
Police detained Do Dang Du, 17, from Dong Phuong Yen village in Hanoi’s Chuong My district on Aug. 5 for allegedly stealing about 2,000,000 dong (U.S. $90) from a neighbor. A local police chief signed an order to detain him at a center in Ha Dong district for two months while officers investigated the crime.
But on Oct. 4, while Du was still in custody, he was beaten unconscious and fell into a coma with a brain hemorrhage until he died six days later.
Vietnam’s state-controlled media reported that Du’s cellmate, Vu Van Binh, had beaten him. After Du collapsed, police took him to the emergency room at a hospital in Ha Dong, but doctors transferred him to Bach Mai hospital, a highly specialized medical center in Dong Da district.
Du’s family, who found out about his hospitalization on Oct. 6, has said that the injuries covering Du’s body indicated that the police had tortured him, while lawyer Nam, who later witnessed Du’s autopsy, has claimed that the report was written incorrectly and refused to sign it.
On Oct. 8, two days before Du died of his injuries, the Hanoi police issued a decision to prosecute Binh for beating Du to death. However, a number of lawyers—including Nam, Luan, Tran Vu Hai and Nguyen Ha Luan—have sent letters to high-ranking officials in Hanoi, demanding an investigation into the case.
Du’s mother Mai also sent a letter to the U.N. Human Rights Council on Oct. 16 requesting an independent probe, prompting a representative from the People’s Council—a local body of power in the authoritarian state—to ask that she withdraw it and wait for compensation from authorities.
Nam said at the time that he had advised Mai on how to cooperate with the council and told her she should make sure to meet with someone directly from the U.N. before proceeding.
Motive behind attack
Nguyen Van Dai, a lawyer in Hanoi who had previously been imprisoned for his work on political cases, told RFA that the government may have ordered the attack on Nam and Luan to set an example for others who might try to challenge the authorities.
“Many lawyers admire the bravery of Tran Thu Nam in representing Du’s family and are willing to stand with him in such cases,” he said.
“That may have made the government upset and led to this attack.”
Other observers suggested the assault was a form of revenge for threatening the police force and the power it holds within the ruling Communist Party.
“I think maybe [the police] wanted to take a revenge on Tran Thu Nam for defending [Du],” said Vo An Don, a lawyer based in Tuy Hoa, the capital of central Vietnam’s Phu Yen province.
“Although this isn’t a political case, it does have something to do with the police. The police have a connection with the government. They are a large force and control the executive system, so they took revenge.”
Ha Si Phu, a dissident from Da Lat—the capital of southern Vietnam’s Lam Dong province—said that by threatening the impunity of the police, Nam and Luan had made Du’s case political.
“It is political because the police now act like a privileged force of the party,” he said.
“Anybody who annoys them makes it into a political issue. They can kill people [with impunity]. Cursing them means cursing the party, even though [Du] had nothing to do with politics.”
Police brutality in Vietnam is a common human rights violation. Scores of people detained on minor charges often die each year while in custody, where they are beaten to extract confessions, sometimes for crimes they say they did not commit, or for criticizing police officers.
Reported by Gia Minh and Kinh Hoa for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.