Foreigners remain in jail after serving time because they have not fulfilled civil obligations ordered by the court
A Nigerian and an American were arrested in Ho Chi Minh City last month for stealing more than US$115,000 from a Malaysian company.
HCMC police said Nigerian Okonkwo Mathias Ugochukwu, 30, and Cletus Chimaobi Hillary had stolen the money from Malaysian firm KHP Proofing.
The money was partial payment for nearly 160 tons of corrugated iron that KHP meant to transfer to local firm Hoa Sen. The duo had hacked the email account of a Hoa Sen employee and diverted the money to their account.
The investigation is ongoing and the men are facing charges of "appropriating money using computers, telecommunication systems, Internet and other digital device." The crime is punishable by jail terms of between 1-20 years or life imprisonment under the Penal Code.
But, as has happened in other cases involving foreign criminals, there is no certainty that the accused will return the money, even under a court order. And what would happen if they do not remains an open question.
While jailing people for criminal offences is easy, enforcing the prisoners' civil obligations, like compensating for damage caused or returning stolen property is difficult to be enforced in reality, experts say.
Early this month, police in Da Nang, a major coastal city in central Vietnam, reported an increase of 76 percent in the number of foreigners violating laws in 2011 over the previous year.
Common violations are swindling, using fake credit cards and hi-tech crimes, they said.
At a conference to review nationwide security in 2012, Minister of Public Security Tran Dai Quang warned about the increasing presence of foreign criminals and crimes in the country.
In 2012, police investigated 128 cases in which damages involved more than VND78 billion ($3.7 million). In the first six months of last year, police arrested 232 foreigners involved in hi-tech crime, including 116 from Taiwan, 105 from China and 11 from Thailand.
His ministry has set up a taskforce to tackle hi-tech crime, Quang said.
Most hi-tech criminals have swindled money from victims abroad but would turn to local people in the near future, he warned.
Last month, the Consular Department and the Criminal Verdict Enforcement Police Department requested the Civil Verdict Enforcement Department to allow foreigners to return to their country after they have served their prison terms.
In Vietnam, the Criminal Verdict Enforcement Police Department [under the Ministry of Public Security] is in charge of carrying out jail sentences; and the Civil Verdict Enforcement Department [under the Justice Ministry] has to enforce other components of the verdicts like payment of compensation, trial fees and property settlements.
Regarding the request to let foreign criminals return to their country after having served their prison terms, the Civil Verdict Enforcement Department said they cannot agree because there is no regulation for exempting the civil obligations of the people involved.
The problem leads to a strange situation for foreign inmates. They have to stay in jail even after they have served their sentences because they have not fulfilled their civil obligations. No figures have been released about how many people are in this situation to date.
For local people in similar cases, they can be placed under house arrest and the local civil verdict enforcement agency will in charge of ensuring the obligations are met.
At a recent annual review meeting, the Civil Verdict Enforcement Department reported that most of the foreign inmates are poor people and their families abroad are unable to support them in paying fines or making other payments ordered by the court.
It said several agencies have agreed to let foreigners return to their own countries if their countries' embassies in Vietnam commit to co-operating with local agencies in enforcing the verdicts; and return the favor, allowing Vietnamese prisoners return home after serving their sentences without fulfilling other obligations. The Vietnamese embassy, would, in turn, co-operate in enforcing the civil component of the convicts' verdicts.
The Civil Verdict Enforcement Agency did not reveal the number of foreigners in this situation. However, it said so far, the French embassy has made the commitment for a French citizen convicted in Vietnam.
But the Philippine embassy in Hanoi was also quoted by the agency as saying that it cannot ensure the civil obligations of Filipinos in similar cases. It said the convicts have to take it up with Vietnamese agencies themselves.
The French and Philippine embassies had not replied to Vietweek's request for comment as of press time.
Work to pay
At the annual review meeting of the Civil Verdict Enforcement Agency, many officials called for amendments to relevant regulations to address this legal conundrum.
Current regulations do not allow convicted people to work and earn money while serving their jail terms so that they can fulfill their civil obligations, they said.
An official of the agency, who wanted to remain anonymous, told Vietweek that some countries punish the failure to fulfill civil obligations with imprisonment. Vietnam should consider this measure, he said.
But lawyer Nguyen Van Hau, deputy chairman of the HCMC Jurists' Association, said the measure can attract controversy.
"A person's right to freedom cannot be measured by money or anything else," he said.
He supported the idea of allowing the inmates to work and earn money to make relevant payments.
"We can solve the issue of unpaid money and ensure that it is a humanitarian solution. It is also a totally feasible measure."