Court prosecutors in Vietnam are deliberately proposing lenient sentences for the alleged killers of a man who died in police custody, according to a lawyer representing his family, in a case that has attracted public scrutiny in the Southeast Asian nation.
Prosecutors have also refused to bring to trial a higher-ranking police officer who ordered the man’s arrest and interrogation, the lawyer said.
Five policemen are accused of beating then-30-year-old Ngo Thanh Kieu to death with rubber batons in March 2012 while Kieu was handcuffed to a chair at the local police station in Phu Yen province’s Tuy Hoa city, undergoing interrogation as a suspected member of a theft ring.
In a trial held last week at the Tuy Hoa People’s Court, Procurator Ngo Thi Hong Minh proposed suspended sentences for four of the men and a jail sentence of five to five and a half years for Nguyen Than Thao Thanh, who allegedly delivered the fatal blow—a charge he denies.
Lawyer Vo An Don, representing Kieu’s family members, recently told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that the prosecutor’s office had acted irregularly in proposing different sentences for the group of five defendants at last week’s trial—the verdict for which is scheduled to be announced on Thursday.
“I think the proposal by the prosecutor’s office was not made according to the law,” Don said.
“They are prosecuting the five defendants—including Thao Thanh—based on Article 298 of the penal code, but they proposed [Thao Thanh] be sentenced to five years in prison, while they only called for suspended sentences for the others.”
Article 298 is used to charge authorities who “apply corporal punishment in investigating, prosecuting, adjudicating and/or judgment-executing activities” and carries a maximum of 12 years imprisonment with a conviction.
Don said that normally all accomplices in a case are charged with the same crime and that all five of the defendants should have been recommended sentences according to Article 298 guidelines.
“However, in this case, it was proposed that Nguyen Than Thanh Thao be given the hardest sentence, while the others receive light punishments,” he said.
At the trial last week, procurator Minh said that the suspended sentences had been proposed for four of the accused because they had cooperated with the prosecution and admitted to their acts, whereas Thao Thanh had denied his involvement.
Thao Thanh has said that he never beat Kieu and that the other defendants had conspired to blame him for the man’s death.
Don told RFA that the lawyer representing Thao Thanh in the trial has said he will appeal if the court decision follows the prosecution’s proposed sentence.
It is rare for a court in Vietnam to depart from the sentences proposed by the prosecution.
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.
He said that Hoan had ordered his subordinates to arrest Kieu at his home at 3:00 p.m. on March 13, 2012 without a warrant and take him to the police station in Tuy Hoa.
Kieu’s wife, Tran Thi Tam, told RFA that her husband was killed around 5:00 p.m., but said she was only notified four hours later.
“[Hoan] should have been tried … but he was not summoned at all,” Don said, adding that he had done nothing to stop his subordinates from beating Kieu.
“[The prosecution] said that he had made achievements in the past and so now he can enjoy impunity, but I don’t agree with that argument.”
Don said that Kieu’s family was unhappy with the proposed sentences, which they felt were too light.
“[If the proposed sentences are accepted] the family will appeal [for harsher punishment] until the end. As their lawyer, I will help them from beginning to end, until justice is served,” he said.
“I don’t mind helping them until the people who have committed a crime are punished by law—I will help them for free.”
Don said that his friends and family had warned him against taking Kieu’s case because of the police involvement, telling him “it could be dangerous” for him.
He said that the case was one of the most difficult he had ever handled, with court officials frequently obstructing him from doing his job, but that he had decided to proceed with it to “fight for justice and to protect the people.”
“I never received any documents from the relevant offices. I had to travel to the court several times to access the files for this case but [the court officials] kept telling me that the person who was in charge of the files was not available,” he said.
He said he was only given permission to represent Kieu’s family three months ago and had received a phone call from the court secretary just three days ahead of last week’s trial informing him that he should attend. But even after the hearings he has “still not received any official [notification] documents.”
Don said that despite the possible danger he faces, he felt that he needed to take the case because deaths in police custody had “become so common lately and are making the people concerned.”
“The authorities always say that the victims committed suicide. The people fear the police and dare not seek support from lawyers. When they are frustrated they protest, but then are prosecuted for ‘obstructing officers on duty’,” he said.
“This leads to people being imprisoned and dying, and that is why I decided to take this case. I knew there would be trouble, but I accepted that because I can help these people find justice and help others as well.”
“I believe I will have a difficult time ahead and things will happen to me that I can’t anticipate, but I accept all of that because as a lawyer, I must fight for justice.”
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.
Last month, police in Binh Phuoc province reported that 41-year-old fraud suspect Bui Thi Huong had used her windbreaker to hang herself on a station door after she went to use the restroom during an interrogation session.
Provincial authorities and a central forensics team cleared the police of any wrongdoing.
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 Gia Minh for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.