Vigilante mobs in northern Vietnam are beating and murdering men who attempt to profit by kidnapping their dogs and selling them to butchers.
The charred remains of a motorbike that belonged to a slain dog thief in Nghe An Province. Rampant dog theft has lead to widespread vigilante justice in the north-central province.
Nguyen Duc Binh, 22, dropped the sword he was holding to the throat of five year-old Vuong Thi Ngoc Khanh when he saw police approach her family's home.
When they entered the house, Binh and the officers spoke about his surrender.
He then climbed into a sack, which the officers decorated with fake blood.
The police carried the would-be crook out past a mob of angry citizens (assuring them that Binh had been beaten to death) and on to the hospital.
Binh's hostage scenario had worked out just as planned. Thanks to the police, the dog thief would manage to live another day.
But many others are not so lucky.
The long escape
In the north-central province of Nghe An, a growing number of Binh's ilk have been murdered by angry mobs. Their bodies and vehicles are often burned"”in this way, he got off easy.
But his final standoff in the small town of Vinh brought the issue of vigilante mobs to the fore.
Last Saturday a group of private citizens began chasing Binh and Dang The Hung, 27, after they saw them attempting to steal a dog. The pair bolted and the residents gave chase. Hung was caught and beaten unconscious with clubs.
Binh managed to duck into the home of Ninh Thi Thu and took her five-year-old daughter, Khanh, hostage.
"Binh knew he would surely die if he was caught by these people," Thu said. "He begged the [mob] to forgive him and threatened to kill Khanh if they refused. He was really frightened and terrified. His voice got hoarse. He became more violent and my daughter cried. I was really afraid that he would harm her."
Nearly 100 local police were mobilized to arrest the thief and calm the mob. By the time they arrived at the scene, the residents had gathered clubs and stones and insisted that the police let them handle the matter in their own way.
The officers were forced to form a human wall leading from the front door of the home to the waiting car in order to get Binh's "body" away from the house.
Police say they took both men to Hospital 115 where they were treated for their injuries.
On Monday, Senior Lieutenant-Colonel Tran Sy Phang, the vice chief of Vinh Town police force, said that Binh will be charged for "illegal detainment" and will be kept in custody for the next four months, while they investigate the case.
Many Vinh residents said the two thieves were lucky the police saved their skin because they could just have easily been beaten to death by the mob.
* November 8, 2010: Hanoi People's Court sentenced 11 residents of Chuong My District to between seven and 12 years for murdering one man and seriously injuring another. The convicts said that they believed the victims were dog thieves.
* March 25, 2010: Seven defendants from Hanoi's Phuc Tho District were sentenced to between eight and 14 years for killing a mentally ill 43-year-old man whom they mistook for a dog thief.
* December 28, 2009: The Supreme People's Court sentenced four men from the north-central province of Ha Tinh to between four and six and a half years for killing two men believed to be dog thieves.
Senior Lieutenant Colonel Ho Ba Vo, vice chief investigator in Nghe An, said "rampant" dog thefts have drawn the ire of the public over the past several years.
He said that when most local residents catch a dog thief they don't bother to call the police. Instead, they beat the crooks to death and set fire to their remains. Vo said that lenient laws accounted for the excessively violent punishment of the crooks.
"Residents say the police just fine these thieves and let them go," he said. "It's true. A thief only faces criminal charges when the property involved is worth at least VND2 million (US$97). A dog is much cheaper than that and the thief is only fined for the attempted theft."
Vo said the police have had a hard time preventing these thefts because most of the culprits are drug addicts and criminals. The senior officer described this class of thief as "ruthless" and often armed in order to fend off police and private citizens, he said.
Vo said he's warned residents not to take action against these thieves because then they open themselves up to facing criminal charges. At the same time, he said, police rarely gather evidence in such cases because most mob violence occurs at night and involves hundreds of people.
Pham Thi Lan recently lost her dog to two thieves who snared the animal as they raced by on a motorbike. She said that the laws against such thieves are not strict enough.
"There should be stricter regulations against dog thieves," she said. "They are challenging the legal system."
Many Nghe An locals are now taking matters into their own hands forming vigilante mobs that are ready to pounce on the first sign of a dog thief.
Dogs occupy a complicated position in Vietnamese culture. For many, they are not only considered pets, but also viewed as indispensable protectors of one's property and household.
Indeed, many residents have reported having their homes burglarized, shortly after losing their dogs.
At the same time, dogs are regarded as a popular delicacy"”throughout northern Vietnam"”and it is understood that any missing dog is likely to have been sold to the nation's many slaughterhouses and dog meat restaurants.
In May, Nguyen Van Hong, a resident of Vinh's Hung Dung Ward, lost his five-year-old German shepherd to dog thieves.
"My dog ran out of the house one afternoon, just as I opened the door. Two thieves quickly arrived on a motorbike and threw a noose over its head," he said. "The 20-kilogram shepherd was dragged away in front of my nose."
"I feel like they took a close friend of mine. They may get some VND400,000 from a slaughterhouse but they were far too cruel."
"If we manage to catch a dog thief, I'll also beat him to deter others," he said.
Weeks after Hong lost his dog, his neighbor Thanh also lost his canine companion.
On June 7 in 2010, the residents of Hung Dong Commune came across the charred remains of a human body and a motorbike on a desolate country road just outside Vinh.
Investigators discovered a nearby sack, containing the body of a dog and a snare pole.
The victim was identified as Nguyen Dinh Phong, 27, of Nghi Loc District.
Investigators said Phong and another man had come to Hung Dong Commune the night before to steal a dog but were later caught by local residents.
The other man managed to escape to safety but Phong was captured and beaten to death before he and his motorbike were burned to cinders.
So far, investigators have not identified a single suspect in the murder.
A few months later, on August 29, two dog thieves were beaten to death in Nghi Loc District's Nghi Thinh Commune.
Police said it was late afternoon when the two men snared a dog in neighboring Nghi Truong Commune. Dozens of locals chased after them on motorbikes and caught them in Nghi Thinh.
The two men abandoned their motorbike and the captured dog and fled into a nearby field. The group pursued them into the field and launched a brutal assault.
One man was killed on the spot; the other succumbed to serious injuries on his way to the hospital.
The pair was later identified as Nguyen Dinh Dung and Nguyen Dinh Hung, both 22, of Nghi Loc District's Nghi Hop Commune.
In Yen Thanh District, one community set up road blocks to prevent dog thieves from escaping.
A local man who had been assigned to one of the barriers said he'd been forced to abandon his post after the pair of fleeing thieves attempted to stab him as they toppled the barrier and made their escape.