Vicious attack leads lawmakers to debate disbanding local forces tasked with "controlling" street vendors
For the colossal crime of selling fruit on the street, Trinh Xuan Tinh said he was handcuffed, tasered and beaten unconscious by members of an Urban Management Unit in Ho Chi Minh City's Binh Thanh District on December 6.
"As soon as I was caught, I begged them to spare me, but they handcuffed me and kept hitting me continuously," said the 34-year-old native of Binh Duong Province.
"I was extremely frightened to hear the sound of the electric taser. I kept begging for mercy. Then I fainted."
Tinh's experience reflects widespread abuse of power by militiamen recruited by ward authorities, as well as the poor management of street vending, a traditional livelihood for millions of poor people in the country.
Tinh said he was parking his bike on the D1 Street to sell fruit when Binh Thanh District's Ward 25 militia arrived.
While other vendors fled, he was caught on the spot because he was unable to start his motorbike.
A witness who wanted to be identified only as P said Tinh attempted to keep his motorbike when the task force took it.
"He asked them to let him go or fine him instead of taking the bike because he is poor and earns money to raise his child with it," she said, adding that the officers responded by handcuffing him and beating him unconscious.
La Van Ma, a xe om (motorbike taxi) driver who witnessed the beating, told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper that the men also tasered Tinh and left the unconscious and handcuffed man on the ground for nearly an hour.
Another witness, Nguyen Thi Bich Van, said the officers were lying when they claimed later that Tinh attacked them. He was peaceful the whole time, she said.
"I hope that I can get my motorbike back soon so I can sell fruits again. My family doesn't have enough food if I do not go to work even for a single day," Tinh said, adding that his wife is a factory worker with a low salary.
Nguyen Van Quy, chairman of the Ward 25 People's Committee, denied that his men had attacked Tinh, saying the vendor was not unconscious, but sleeping because he was drunk and had a cold.
Quy also accused Tinh of kicking one of his men.
Lawyer Hoang Cao Sang of the Hoang Viet Luat Law Office has agreed to help Tinh submit complaints to relevant agencies for free.
Sang said that at least ten witnesses have signed a report by Tinh's family on the incident. He said he would guide Tinh on denouncing the officers involved.
The incident has drawn severe criticism from many city legislators, some of whom have called for the disbanding of all local militias.
"It is wrong to beat a resident for any reason," said Lam Dinh Chien, a city legislator. "No officer on duty has this right."
Chien said relevant authorities should review the militiamen involved to prevent similar cases.
Nguyen Hong Ha, another city legislator, also said the Ward 25 officers were wrong to beat the street vendor.
"If it is necessary, the People's Council [city legislature] will discuss the attitude of government officials in the execution of their duty," he added.
Le Van Cuong, a National Assembly member, told the Infonet news website that handcuffs should only be used on criminals caught red-handed.
"Militiamen and [other] officers using weapons to control Tinh is an abuse of power, and reveals the attitude of looking down on residents as also a general thuggishness [among officers]," he said. "The ward head must be held responsible for his [poor] management of his subordinates."
Cuong also said the involved officers should face criminal charges or dismissal.
"They should be strictly punished to deter abuse of power by militiamen."
Cuong went further and said the very idea of militiamen should be rethought and residents' oppinions considered in deciding whether or not to disband and scrap the militias altogether.
"If they do more harm than good, the force should be abolished," he said.
Meanwhile, experts said there should be more practical and humane regulations on street vending.
Lawyer Nguyen Van Hau, deputy chairman of the HCMC Jurists Association, said specific areas should be designated for street vendors to ply their trade.
"The city should also support them in changing their vocation while imposing strict fines on those who sell outside designated areas."
Thanh Ngoc, a consultant with the Hoang Viet Luat Law Office, said a 2012 decree stipulates that vendors will be fined between VND100,000-200,000 if they sell on streets and sidewalks where street vending is banned.
"But there are no signboards that indicate such bans. So they just continue to sell things to eke out a living and government officials continue to catch them," she said.
Ngoc said the city should plan areas for street vendors because the trade is a cultural tradition and a popular way for poor people to earn a living.
She said Singapore has recognized street vendors' contribution to the economy and has settled them in specific areas.
A long-time street vendor near the Catheral de Notre Dame in District 1 said she has to work hard from the early morning until late at night to make ends meet.
"They told us that we are not allowed to sell near this area. But they don't tell us where we can."
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