Doubts linger as Vietnam reports causes of 226 deaths in custody

By Cam Nguyen, Thanh Nien News

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 Nguyen Thanh Chan (C) has made headlines in Vietnam since April 2014 when he had his name cleared after serving 10 years as part of a life sentence for murder. Photo: Ha An

Many lawmakers in Vietnam are not convinced that the majority of deaths in custody have been caused by suicide and natural causes. 
This was among the key findings in a Ministry of Public Security report presented at a meeting with the standing committee of the National Assembly on Thursday.
According to the report, 226 detainees died around the country between October 2011 and September 2014, with no comparable data.  
Nguyen Van Hien, chairman of the assembly’s judiciary committee, said the number of deaths in custody apparently has increased a lot in recent years, urging the government to provide further details on the causes.
Hien expressed his disbelief in the finding that many people in custody died from illnesses or committed suicide.
He pointed out that holding cells have very low windows and no elevated spots.
“Is there really any chance that detainees could hang themselves just sitting?” Hien said.
Do Manh Hung, vice chairman of the assembly’s committee on social affairs, raised similar questions.
He wondered how it was possible that the number of suicide cases surpassed deaths by natural causes, and questioned the likelihood of fatalities due to diseases like the common skin condition Psoriasis.
Hung speculated that the deaths had something to do with how the detainees were held, stressing that law enforcements are obliged to keep them in safety and good health conditions.
Nguyen Manh Cuong, another member of the judiciary committee, said when there is an excessive use of detention, wrongful conviction is likely to happen.
Many officers tend to try to press charges against the suspects they already have in custody, Cuong said.
He quoted official figures as showing that in Vietnam, seven in every 10 suspects become detainees, and sometimes the rate could be nine in 10, which is very high.
More than 200,000 people were detained pending for criminal investigations between 2012 and 2014, the new report said.
Le Thi Nga, vice chairwoman of the committee, said that there seems to be a tendency among police officers to detain suspects to make their questioning convenient.
Police then end up relying on the suspects’ confessions to press charges against them without caring about collecting more evidence, Nga said.
In some cases, apparently, they even compromise the evidence to make it in line with the confession, she said.
Nga said high-profile cases of wrong conviction exposed in Vietnam recently have many things in common: convicts admitting to the crime at the beginning of the investigation, but later retracted confession, and finally being exonerated. 
In fact, many suspects accused investigators of torturing them to extract confession, but when the investigators denied the claims, judges would take no actions, according to Nga.
“There are so many problems with our legal procedures,” she said.

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