At least one senior Party official and several police officials feel Vietnam should eventually do away with the death penalty, but for now, would-be executioners are relieved that a new law has chosen what they call a more humane method – the lethal injection.
For Vietnamese officials who are involved in the process of carrying out death sentences awarded to criminals, the new Law on Execution of Criminal Judgments means more than a legal adjustment.
Lawyer Lo Xuan Le, who used to serve as a member and also chief of firing squads in the northern province of Son La for nearly 20 years, said the switch from firing squad to lethal injection for death penalty execution from January 1 onwards is a “humane move” that the government has made regarding death sentences.
Officials from several agencies are part of an execution council, “but those who directly use guns… are always the ones who are most stressed out,” Le said.
“To be honest, no one is willing to end a life with their own hands, even if it is that of a criminal,” he said.
Le himself says he had become a lawyer with the purpose of helping drug offenders escape capital punishment. However, the laws were already in place and there was nothing much he could do.
According to Le, every year, between five and seven death sentences were carried out in Son La, mainly of drug offenders. During his tenure, he had to do many things never mentioned in the law to reduce the stress for his subordinates.
Usually, before the execution day, firing squad members had three days to practice, but he always saved one of them to prepare the members for possible mental suffering.
But, it wasn’t enough.
The lawyer said he once had to accompany the captain of a firing squad in making the last shot, after seeing that the latter was showing signs of having a mental breakdown. The procedure in an execution is that the captain fires the final shot.
“I knew that it was against regulations to accompany him like that, but I understood how he felt, because I had gone through the same thing many times. If I let him fire the gun himself and unfortunately, he missed the target, it wasn’t only that we couldn’t complete our mission, but the whole team would be affected mentally, as well.”
The former officer said at the end of the day, he would also take the firing squad members out for dinner to talk to them about it.
Given that many of the firing squad members were from ethnic minority communities like the Thai and the Mong who had different beliefs regarding deaths, Le would also grant them leave of a couple of days after the execution so they could return to their home villages.
There they would do some spiritual rituals to protect the spirits of their dead relatives from being captured by the criminals’ spirits.
“With the switch, we feel less confused and more relieved in carrying out death penalties,” said Senior Lieutenant-colonel Vu Huu Sang from Son La prison.
Talking about reasons for the proposal for a new method of execution, Le Thi Thu Ba, deputy chief of the steering committee on judicial reforms under the Party’s Central Committee, cited the case of an officer who was an active firing squad member for many years before falling sick because he could not sleep for a long time.
She said many people who were probably very cruel when committing their crimes would become very weak in front of an execution council. They would cry and refuse to have their last meal. This made it hard and exerted pressure on all the people involved, including officers escorting the criminals to the execution ground and the forensic scientists who came to check the bodies after the sentences was carried out.
“I still think it is better if we can remove the death penalty in the future,” Ba said.
Besides the change in the execution method, the new law also allows the family or legal representative of the executed person to receive his or her body for burial, instead of waiting for three years after the execution.
“The new provision, despite being mentioned very briefly in the new law, will help reduce heartrending stories about execution grounds,” Ba said, referring to the fact that families of the executed hired gravediggers to steal the bodies to do the burial on their own.
In fact, many local agencies, including the National Assembly’s Justice Committee, made proposals for the change following the news that the bodies of Vietnam’s most notorious gangster, Nam Cam, and his subordinates were taken illegally from the Long Binh Execution Grounds in Ho Chi Minh City immediately after their execution in June 2004.
Furthermore, the grave of one of his subordinates was deliberately damaged by gravediggers who were angered by his family’s decision to build a gravestone at the execution ground itself instead of hiring them to steal the body.
Nguyen Bao Tram, director of Saigon Lawyers Association, who was then a journalist with the Phap Luat TPHCM (HCMC Law) publication, investigated the case and published a series of articles exposing illegal grave digging rings at Long Binh.
“It was a story that outraged many people,” Tram wrote about the damaged grave.
“But most of the outrage was not only aimed at the illegal gravediggers, but also at the regulation that does not allow families to receive the bodies of executed people, allowing the gravediggers to do the illegal business, and breaking the hearts of their families.
It is an unnecessary pain.”
However, with the new law, this would change.
“The new law will put an end to firing squads, and teams planting stakes to which criminals are tied. It will also end the obsession of their families (about proper burial of the dead),” said Vu Xuan Hong, deputy chief of Prison No.1 in Hanoi.
Hong said during the time they took care prisoners on death row, officers were always hoping that they would escape capital punishment.
It has happened before that some prisoners have got their death sentences overturned on appeal, said Hong, who has worked at the prison for nearly 30 years.
“It is good news not only for the criminals, but also for us,” he said.