A man serving a prison sentence for stealing a cell phone has died at a detention center in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi, according to his sister, who said his body was in “terrible condition” after being beaten to death by authorities and called for an end to unjust killings in police custody.
Vu Nam Ninh, 45, died on July 20 at the No. 1 Detention Center in Ba Dinh district’s Ngoc Khanh ward, his sister Vu Thi Thanh Huyen told RFA’s Vietnamese Service, adding that she only learned of his death after visiting Hospital 198 the following day on the instruction of authorities.
When she arrived at the hospital, authorities told her family that Ninh was dead and that his death was the result of complications from an “illness.” But Huyen said that after inspecting her brother’s body, it was clear that he had been killed.
“When we arrived at the hospital, after reviewing my brother’s medical records, we knew that his death was caused by beating—not because of ‘being sick,’ as the authorities told us,” she said.
“His body was in terrible condition. His hands and his face were full of watery fluid … [He had a] broken leg and a broken collarbone.”
“We saw a lot of bruises on his back, and some spots that seemed to have been caused by shocks from electric batons. A finger on his left hand was broken and he had blood in his nose and ear.”
It was unclear whether Ninh had any history of illness.
Huyen told RFA that her brother had recently been sentenced to eight years in prison after stealing somebody’s cell phone during a night of drinking. She said he had voluntarily turned the phone in to the authorities the following day, but was arrested and found guilty shortly after.
When contacted by RFA, a staff member at the No. 1 Detention Center acknowledged Ninh’s death and said authorities plan to investigate the matter.
“We have been in contact with the victim’s family, as well as relevant authorities,” the staff member said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“This case should be investigated using forensics, and should be brought to the attention of the city council. But the family has not yet agreed on date and time [to meet with us and the authorities]. We are still coordinating to [meet and] settle the issue.”
Huyen said her family had received a letter from authorities in Ngoc Khanh ward to set up a meeting by the end of the month “to solve the problem.”
She confirmed that the No. 1 Detention Center had also contacted the family, but said she was unsure whether to agree to meet with officials there.
“We already asked them how my brother died several times, but they have not given us [a definitive] answer,” she said.
“Why didn’t they tell us that he died on July 20 [instead of waiting a day]? They did not have any useful information about my brother’s death.”
Ninh’s family has launched a petition calling for an investigation into his case, which has attracted attention on Facebook and other social media channels, and Huyen also urged the international community to pressure Vietnam over its culture of impunity regarding unlawful deaths in custody.
“Firstly, my family and I want to send a message that the circumstances of my brother’s death must be made clear,” she said.
“Secondly, I intend to campaign for an end to unjust killings [in detention].”
Police abuse highlighted
A report issued by New York-based Human Rights Watch in September last year, discovered incidents of police abuse in more than 44 of Vietnam’s 58 provinces, and in each of the country’s five largest cities—Hanoi, Hai Phong, Da Nang, Can Tho, and Ho Chi Minh City—from August 2010 to July 2014.
Using research based on official media coverage—as well as reports from independent bloggers, citizen-journalists, and foreign news agencies—the report included incidents of abuse during arrest, questioning at police stations, and in pretrial detention.
The report included cases of killings in custody, alleged suicides, unexplained custodial deaths—including of previously healthy men in their 20s and 30s who allegedly died from illnesses—torture, and beatings, some of which included children, and, in one case, of a person with a mental disability.
Human Rights Watch said that most cases involved people accused of petty crimes, domestic disputes, and traffic violations, and that In many cases the deaths appeared to result from efforts to obtain confessions.
In most cases, police implicated in abuse were not disciplined, or received extremely light punishments, and only a handful of deaths received extensive newspaper coverage—usually when victims’ families actively sought justice and spoke to the media.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by KaLynh Ngo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.