Is Vietnam ready to abolish death penalty?

By An Dien, Thanh Nien News

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Policemen stand guard as inmates wait before being released from Hoang Tien prison, about 100 km (62 miles) outside Hanoi August 30, 2013. Photo credit: Reuters

 On January 19, a day after saying it had tried in vain to stop Indonesia from executing a Vietnamese drug convict, Vietnam, where heroin trafficking is rampant, sentenced eight drug mules to death.
Earlier, on January 5, following blanket media coverage about appeals by death row inmates, the apex prosecutors’ office had launched a review of 16 convictions that showed signs of miscarriage of justice.
On December 4, a day before a murder convict was to be executed by lethal injection, President Truong Tan Sang had ordered a last-minute reprieve and instructed related agencies to investigate if there had been a wrongful conviction.
In a country where death sentences are often handed down to those convicted of drug offences and murder, analysts increasingly raise two major questions: Has the death penalty played any role in deterring those crimes? And, in the context of increasingly disturbing media reports about wrongful convictions, how can Vietnam ensure innocent people are not executed?
There is a third, possibly more important, question: Is the country really equipped to carry out executions?
“Vietnam belongs to an increasingly small minority of countries in the world that continues to apply the death penalty despite the clear global movement towards abolition and decreased use of capital punishment,” Delphine Lourtau, a lead researcher at the Cornell University Law School-run website Death Penalty Worldwide, told Thanh Nien News.
In the past couple of years Vietnam has been one of just around 20 countries to carry out executions. In Asia, 10 out of 51 states did so in 2013. The US carried out 35 executions last year according to, with only 12 of the executed being white.
Tran Van Do, deputy chief justice of the Supreme People’s Court, said at a conference last December that courts around Vietnam sentence some 200 people to death every year.
In 2009 Vietnam amended its Penal Code, reducing the number of crimes punishable by death to 22 from 29. The country remains among a handful of states that consider economic offenses like fraud and corruption serious enough to warrant death.
There are no official statistics in the public domain on the number of death sentences carried out in Vietnam. But with at least 500 people awaiting executions, “Vietnam's death row is amongst the 12 largest in the world, and only four Asian countries have more death-sentenced prisoners,” Lourtau said.
Vietnam switched to lethal injection from firing squad in 2011.
But an EU refusal to sell drugs for lethal injections led to a delay in executions until August 2013, when Vietnam began manufacturing them.
In a 2013 decree the government said “drugs that make a person lose consciousness, relax the muscles, and stop the heart" would be used.
In a letter to the Vietnamese health ministry later that year, the British, Danish and German medical associations expressed “grave concern” about such locally produced drugs, which they called “a three-drug protocol”.
“The use of three drugs is controversial because of the potential for executions resulting in excruciating pain for the prisoner if insufficient anesthetic is administered,” the letter said.
“In the United States of America, where the three-drug protocol was originally pioneered, the Supreme Court has declared that the punishment would amount to medical torture if the first drug did not fully anesthetize the prisoner.”
In April 2014, a botched execution in Oklahoma in the US using the three-drug protocol left a convicted killer writhing and clenching his teeth on the gurney, leading Oklahoma prison officials to halt the proceedings before the inmate's eventual death from a heart attack, according to the Associated Press.
Meanwhile, miscarriages of justice in Vietnam seem to be getting increased media coverage in recent years.
The most recent high-profile case was that of Nguyen Thanh Chan, 55, of the northern province of Bac Giang.
Chan was found guilty of murdering a local woman and sentenced to life in prison in March 2004. Four months later the Supreme People's Court dismissed his appeal and upheld the sentence.
But his wife’s persistent investigation forced the real murderer, another local man, to give himself up in October 2013. Chan was released a month later and the Supreme People's Court officially cleared his name in January 2014.
In what was Vietnam’s first public review of police torture in September, Truong Trong Nghia, an outspoken lawmaker who is also vice chairman of the Vietnam Bar Association, condemned the practice as a threat to the integrity and stability of the political system.
“Wrongful verdicts, threats and torture are critical threats to the system itself. The [victims'] descendants will hold us accountable,” he said in the National Assembly.
"Vietnam belongs to an increasingly small minority in the world that continues to apply the death penalty despite the clear global movement towards abolition and decreased use of capital punishment."
No letup
The police busted around 20,000 drug-related cases in 2014 and arrested nearly 30,000 people, some 1,500 more than in the previous year, the Ministry of Public Security said in its year-end report in December.
A report by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Inter-Parliamentary Assembly in May 2014 acknowledged that in Vietnam drug crimes involving foreign elements and drug trafficking activities by road and air continue to rise.
“The fighting of drug criminal forces is getting more aggressive. Many new synthetic drugs are going to penetrate into Vietnam,” the report said.“The number of addicts in the country has not decreased, the use of synthetic drugs has increased and spread to many places.”
Vietnamese authorities also admit that the number of violent, grisly murders and robberies across the country is showing no signs of falling, even as the media carries story after story of people not hesitating to kill for the most trivial reasons.
Globally, opponents of capital punishment point out that decades of scientific research has never been able to prove that the death penalty has any deterrent effect.
They say it has long been observed that crime rates do not correlate with the application of the death penalty. In fact, in many jurisdictions (such as Canada and some US states), the murder rate actually declined in the years following the abolition of capital punishment, they add.
In a definitive report published in April 2012, the US-based National Research Council of the National Academies looked at three decades of studies on the deterrent effect of the death penalty on homicide and concluded that they were all methodologically flawed.
“So it's clear that the deterrence argument cannot and should not be relied upon as the basis for retaining capital punishment,” Lourtau said.
Against people’s will?
But Vu Thi Thuy, a Vietnamese law instructor at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Law, said whether or not the death penalty helps deter crimes depends very much on the agenda of the researchers.
“Those who want to oppose capital punishment will tailor their research to substantiate their argument. Those who are for it will publish research proving otherwise.”
The bottom line is that “a society free of capital punishment is one that has developed to a certain high level in tandem with its citizens’ awareness of the law,” she said.
“Vietnam's current socio-economic conditions don't allow for that [abolishing the death penalty].”
The country is looking to scale back the death penalty, with debates continuing in the National Assembly.
But what tops the agenda is not whether the country should abolish the death penalty altogether: it is how many crimes the law should make punishable by death.
A majority of lawmakers support reducing them to less than 10 from the current 29 by removing those like rape and smuggling.
Against the backdrop of an EU campaign for the abolition of the death penalty worldwide, the proponents of its continuation in Vietnam are saying they do not want further delays in executing death-row inmates.
Some even urge a return to the firing squad.
Even if the country looks to abolish the death penalty, international practices have shown that a referendum would be needed, Thuy said.
“Overall, I’m pretty sure that the people would think that the death penalty still needs to be in place.”
She cited a survey of 500 people she did in 2007 in which 92 percent of the respondents backed the death penalty.
“I don’t think that rate would change much now.”

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