An eye for an eye"¦

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As authorities think of ways to clear the rising backlog of death-row prisoners, experts say capital punishment fails to address the crux of the problem of increasing crime


  Ethnic Hmong hill tribe children carrying their lunch boxes as they walk home after a school day at a village in the mountainous district of Mu Cang Chai, in the northwestern Vietnamese province of Yen Bai. Children from poor rural and remote regions often suffer from malnutrition due to economic difficulties. Vietnamese experts concur that the death penalty can only be a short-term measure to deal with crimes in the country and much is needed to be done to fix the social structure to ensure equal opportunities for everybody. Photo: AFP

An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind, Mahatma Gandhi is believed to have said.

Vietnamese authorities have no time to ponder such lofty thoughts. They have a job to do. Execute hundreds of people who have been handed down the death penalty.

There is a hitch, though.

In July 2011, the National Assembly, Vietnam's legislature, passed a law that said Vietnam will shift from a firing squad to administering a lethal injection, as a more humane method for both the executed and the executioners. The European Union (EU), which has banned the death penalty within the bloc, has also banned the sale of drugs to countries that want to use them to execute people.

The law should have taken effect last November, but since then the execution of at least 400 inmates has not been able to go ahead due to the ban on the export of drugs meant for lethal injections by the EU.

And there is no sign that the drugs - including the barbiturate anesthetic Sodium thiopental, muscle relaxant Pancuronium bromide and Potassium chloride - would ever become available.

"The EU aims to prevent the use of [its] medicines in countries that have not banned the death penalty," Maja Kocijancic, an EU spokesperson, told Vietweek.

"There is no intention of lifting the export controls as long as some countries continue to use these drugs for executions," Kocijancic said, adding that the death penalty is abolished in all EU member states.

At a National Assembly meeting last week, several lawmakers including the vice house speaker even proposed that Vietnam consider switching back to the firing squad as a solution to the deadlock.

While it is quite common for lawmakers in many countries to argue that the death penalty is needed as an effective criminal deterrent, in Vietnam, as elsewhere, the evidence suggests otherwise.

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Death penalty statistics are not made available in Vietnam, but the punishment is handed down mostly to those convicted of murder and drug-trafficking. Those who support capital punishment have to face up to a tough reality: the number and intensity of these crimes have shown no sign of abating.

The Ministry of Public Security says that during the first half of this year, agencies have busted more than 10,000 drug-related cases and arrested around 14,600 people involved. This marked an increase of 370 cases and 900 arrestees from the same period last year.

Police in Ho Chi Minh City have also acknowledged that the number of methamphetamine users in the southern hub rose significantly between 2007 and 2011, compared with the 2002-06 period.

In a report filed to the National Assembly on October 22, Minister of Public Security Tran Dai Quang said that a number of "cruel" and grisly murders and robberies across the country point to a tear in the moral fabric of the country.

With the media carrying story after story of people not hesitating to kill others for the most insignificant reasons, sociologists and others in the country have begun asking vexing questions: Does the death penalty tackle the root of the problem? What is the root of the problem? How has Vietnamese society gotten to the point where increasingly heinous crimes have become more common?

There is some agreement. Almost all experts concur that over the two decades that the nation has surged economically, the rich-poor gap has continued to widen in Vietnam, along with growing resentment, particularly among the have-nots, toward the haves.

"A rising number of people have mysteriously made a windfall and this has done nothing but to add salt to the gaping wounds of the poor," said Pham Bich San, a Hanoi-based sociologist.

"It is those nouveau riches emerging with no cultural and intellectual base that have fueled jealousy and the desire to have the same from the have-nots," San told Vietweek.

Vietnam joined the lower-middle income bracket in 2009, with per capita income rising to US$1,260 last year, from $110 two decades earlier, according to the World Bank.

But the gap between Vietnam's rich and poor has also widened to 9.2 times last year from 8.9 times in 2008, according to the latest data compiled by the General Statistics Office.

In major cities like Hanoi and HCMC, the gulf is glaringly evident.

The boutiques of major luxury brands - Marc Jacobs, Cartier, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, or Hermès - preen on the streets before the eyes of construction workers and street vendors who sit at sidewalk eateries, spending less than a dollar on a meal.

In Vietnam's highland areas, a majority of the ethnic minority residents are still struggling to have enough food every day, while the Hanoi Hermès boutique has said it has imported ten sets of the latest fashion bags, each of which costs $140,000, or VND2.9 billion.

A recent plan by the education ministry to charge students extra for "quality" classes in public schools has drawn flak for creating a rich-poor gap in the educational setting.

The widespread disparity has become serious enough for the Vietnamese leadership to take notice and warn against its repercussions.

"The rich-poor divide has even emerged inside the [Communist] Party"¦ Some members have got richer so quickly, leading a lavish life that is a far cry from that of the workers," Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong said at a conference in March.

"This is the most worrying threat to the survival of the Party," Trong said.

Sitting in the shade of a building opposite the newly-built posh Vincom trade center in downtown HCMC, Ngo Huu Tot recalled the days when he could make double the amount of money he gets these days as a cyclo driver.

With a daily income of around $5, Tot is the breadwinner for a family of four.

"Life is much harsher and I feel so clearly that people like us are left behind," he said.

"˜A nightmare'

Vietnam is among 21 countries in the world to carry out executions in 2011, according to Amnesty International. Twenty-eight out of 41 countries in the Asia-Pacific region have abolished the death penalty for all crimes either in practice or in law, the London-based group said.

Vietnam has reduced the number of major crimes attracting the death penalty from 29 in 1999 to 22 three years ago.

The debate over the effectiveness of the death penalty in deterring crime has become more voluble in recent years in the country.

"Personally, I doubt if potential killers think about the possibility of spending their lives in prison or ending up on death row before they commit their crimes," a Vietnamese sociologist spoke on condition of anonymity.

But there is no indication that Vietnam would consider abolishing the death penalty in the near future.

 "There appears to be strong public support for executing drug traffickers because they deal in death," said Carl Thayer, a Vietnam expert at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

But there is broad, almost unanimous agreement among Vietnamese experts that the death penalty, at best, can only be a short-term measure to deal with crimes in the country.

"Much is needed to be done to fix the social structure to ensure equal opportunities for everybody," said San, the Hanoi-based sociologist.

"Otherwise the emergence of the nouveau riche who have no capability and intelligence would only worsen the hatred among the have-nots.

"We need to ask a very serious question: why have an increasing number of crimes been committed in a very cruel manner? Is inflicting cruel punishment to punish a cruel crime the answer to this question?"

Against the backdrop of the EU campaigning 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.

They are urging a return to the firing squad.

"We just cannot persist with the status quo just because of the shortage of drugs," said Huynh Ngoc Son, the vice house speaker and a vocal opponent of lethal injection.

He said the failure to execute [the death-row inmates] would encourage criminals.

Son's position is at odds with Vietnam's ex-leaders.

Late Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet and former President Nguyen Minh Triet had expressly objected to the use of the firing squad to carry out state executions for major crimes.

Media reports have also spoken of the trauma suffered by police who are members of firing squads, placing special emphasis on the stress caused by executing females.

The trauma does not fade away overnight.

A former member of the firing squad in the Mekong Delta province of Vinh Long has blood-red eyes that flash angry glares even when he talks to his friends.

"I think I'm kind of crazy now," he said, declining to be named.

Asked about his experiences with the firing squad, he said: "It's just a nightmare."

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