Ex-cons band together to fight prisoner disenfranchisement

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Prosperous ex-convicts have set up a fund to help others like them return to society

Inmates change out of prison uniforms prior to their release from Thanh Xuan prison, outside Hanoi, on August 29

Lien Khui Thin says that every convict longs for his release date. But as the day nears, anxiety mounts about what awaits him on the other side of the prison walls.

"Every day inmates complete their sentence and walk out of jail," said the former director of District 3 Export Import and Tourism Company. "They often tell me that they don't know what to do or where to go."

For the first time in Vietnam's history, a new charity is being established to help these men return to normal life. Thin, an ex-con and the fund's new director, told Thanh Nien Weekly that his own harrowing brush with the law inspired him to help Vietnam's most marginalized social class.

In 1997, Thin and two other men were arrested during a graft scandal. Two years later, the trio was sentenced to death by the Ho Chi Minh City People's Court for "swindling to appropriate property."

The court found Thin guilty of colluding with Tang Minh Phung, former director of the Minh Phung Company and Pham Nhat Hong, deputy director of the HCMC branch of the Industrial and Commercial Bank of Vietnam, to falsify documents to obtain bank loans. The three were charged with embezzling VND3 trillion in government funds.

Phung and Hong were executed in 2003. Thin's life was spared.

In 2003, his sentence was reduced to life imprisonment. Then-President Tran Duc Luong attributed the clemency to Thin's good behavior and his efforts to return the stolen funds. Last September, at age 57, he was granted amnesty by President Nguyen Minh Triet.

The entrepreneur said his twelve-and-a-half years in jail gave him plenty of time to understand the dread of Vietnamese convicts on their way out of jail.

Vietnam grants amnesty
to 17,000 prisoners

More than 17,000 prisoners have been released to mark Vietnam's National Day which falls on September 2.

According to a government statement issued on August 28, 17,210 prisoners were pardoned. 310 others will have their sentences commuted outright.

Thirty national security offenders and 37 foreigners from 11 countries will be among the released.

Deputy Prime Minister Truong Vinh Trong said a total of more than 100,000 prisoners have been granted amnesty since 2000.

Vietnam typically grants amnesty to prisoners on major national holidays, including the National Day (September 2), the Lunar New Year (Tet) and the Reunification Day (April 30).

"Some said they hoped the jail would recruit them as paid administrators or lease them a piece of land on the prison grounds to build a house and a farm," he said. "They just wanted a normal life and they feared that being freed without a home and without any job prospects would force them to return to crime."

Despite his many efforts to secure jobs for inmates returning to society, Thin said, many face discrimination from the community and find it hard to live a normal life.

It takes a thief to save a thief

On August 28, Thin and his friends launched "Quy hoan luong" (the fund for an honest return), a charitable organization aimed at helping ex-prisoners reintegrate into society. Thin became the director of the first social charitable organization in Vietnam dedicated to the purpose.

Since then, they've raised VND600 million for the effort. Thin added that an organization in Sweden has pledged support to their mission.

Quy hoan luong's chairman, Tran Van Tao Esq., described the organization's principal goal as finding and creating jobs for freed inmates.

Tao, who is also former vice director of HCMC Police Department says that prisoner rehabilitation is best served by the efforts of social charitable organizations.

"Firstly, we will help them register for personal papers like identity cards and household registrations before connecting them with other social organizations to supply them with jobs," he said.

"We are also coordinating with several jails to study the demands of the inmates serving their sentences, offering them vocational training and establishing production facilities that will recruit them when they are freed," he said.

President Nguyen Minh Triet praised the humanity of the group's efforts to help ex-prisoners overcome their pasts.

Triet hoped the fund's success would translate to increased security and order in the cities, he said, during a reception of Quy hoan luong's founders at the President Palace on July 20


Many ex-prisoners have volunteered to work for the fund, including Dam Manh Thang, former director of the Miliket Foodstuff Company in HCMC. Thang was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1995, but was recently granted a presidential pardon. He now works as head of the fund's office.

Co-founder Le Minh Hai was also sentenced to death for embezzlement. The then-director of the Dolphin Vung Tau Company was found guilty, in 1997, of colluding with Pham Huy Phuoc, director of Tamexco, to obtain government bank loans for personal use.

Hai's sentence was reduced to life imprisonment, the same year, due to a pardon issued by then-President Le Duc Anh.

In 2005, Hai was granted total amnesty. He currently serves as director of Vinashin Vung Tau Co. and said he is working hard to raise funds for Quy hoan luong.

"It took me more than three months to obtain a household certificate and an identity card," he said. "But even when you have identity papers, no one wants to hire an ex-inmate. They always want to stay away from us. The fund will surely offer practical help to them."

Days after the fund was created, authorities in District 3 announced that 50 inmates would be freed by presidential pardons issued in honor of National Day (September 2).

"Although our office on 27 Ky Dong Street (in District 3) will officially open on September 22, we are already taking steps to help these men," Thin said, adding that the fund's hotline, 08 3 931 4179, is operating during office hours.

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