Overturned verdict leads to suspect abuse scandal

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Man released after 19 years of wrongful incarceration says police used death threat to get confession


Nguyen Thanh Chan, 52, was released on November 4, after evidence presented by his wife led to the arrest of another man who later confessed to the crime. Chan, who has been jailed for more than ten years of a life sentence, told the media he had been threatened and tortured into confession during an investigation process with no defense lawyer. Photo by Mai Ha 

Nguyen Thanh Chan said a police officer threatened him with a knife when he was under investigation for murder more than ten years ago in the northern province of Bac Giang.

"Investigator L. asked "˜can I get you to confess, [or] will I get you to die'?" said Chan.

"Investigator D. beat me and forced me to practice repeating the crime scene reenactment [the way he wanted]," he said.

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Chan was accused of killing his neighbor Nguyen Thi Hoan after a failed rape attempt.

The case has been back in the news ever since Chan was released last month, after evidence presented by his wife led to the arrest of Ly Nguyen Chung. Chung has since confessed to being the actual killer. Chan had served more than ten years in jail for murder conviction.

Experts say the case is indicative of a system that often denies the right to remain silent and the right to attorney. They say these two rights are a must to prevent ensure fair trials and to prevent torture and wrongful convictions.

Dodgy story

After being questioned several times, Chan said he was arrested and forced to stay awake for several days straight and was eventually forced to confess to the crime.

"Officer L. forced me to draw a knife and threatened to hit me on my head with a hammer after I refused."

Chan said that after investigator D. told him to write a fake confession, he was moved from the Viet Yen District police station to Ke Prison.

"In the prison, I was ordered to thrust here and there. They had another prisoner act like the victim and forced me to stab with a comb or a spoon," he said, adding that after that, he was brought to a house to re-enact the stabbing for a film.

Chan was convicted of the crime at both the Court of First Instance and the Appeals Court in 2004, despite the fact that he retracted to his confession in court and his lawyer pointed out that there was insufficient evidence.

He appealed the life sentence but was rejected by the Supreme People's Court in the same year.

At the Court of First Instance, Chan said one of the prosecutors present in the room had threatened to beat him if he did not sign confession documents.

On November 10, a source told Vietweek that the Bac Giang Police Department had reported to the provincial Party Unit on reports made by six investigators involved. They all maintained that they had not used force while investigating Chan.

The six officers have been promoted to high ranks and positions in the province police force ever since. One is now the province's chief inspector and another is its chief drug-crime investigator.

Following Chan's release, President Truong Tan Sang called on prosecutors and the justice system to quickly clear the name of the wrongly-convicted man and pay him compensation.

He ordered the Minister of Public Security, the head of the Supreme People's Procuracy, and the presiding judge of the Supreme People's Court to punish those responsible for the wrongful conviction of Chan.

But while the case is being reinvestigated, no official decision has been made on compensation for Chan, no official investigation of his investigators has begun, and he remains un-exonerated.

Absentee lawyer

Lawyer Duong Minh Kien of the Bac Giang Bar Association said if a defense lawyer had been present during the investigation, interrogators would have not forced Chan to confess to murder by threatening and torturing him.

"Why did the defense lawyer not fully protect his client's relevant rights and perform his duties and responsibilities as a lawyer ethically and with conscience?" he was quoted by Nguoiduatin news website as saying.

He said Chan's lawyer Nguyen Thanh Bien, who was appointed to defend for him, did not meet Chan in prison during the investigation, nor did they meet after police wrapped up the investigation.

The judges would have been more cautious if defense lawyers had met Chan after the police investigation when Chan could have reported the beating and being forced to confess to the crime and falsely reenact the crime.

On the other hand, lawyer Nguyen Van Hau, deputy chairman of the HCMC Jurists' Association, told Vietweek that there was no certainty that Chan would not have been wrongly convicted if his lawyer had fulfilled his role from the beginning.

"A lawyer's involvement in the beginning only contributes to limiting wrong convictions."

"If the prosecutors and judges are on the same side, there is no way for the lawyer [to defend for a justified verdict]," he said.

Rights of the accused

Hau said it's very rare for lawyers to be able to defend suspects from the beginning of the investigation process, partly because the defendants are not aware of their rights.

"However, based on my own experience, the major cause of the problem is that the investigation agency does not let defendants know their rights, especially the right to have a defense attorney," he said.

In some cases, lawyers can't get licensed to defend the accused even when the defendants know their rights, he said.

Following Chan's case, Le Thi Thu Ba, deputy head of the central commission for judicial reform, said the involvement of lawyers and prosecutors during the investigation process should be increased.

"The presence of prosecutors or lawyers during interrogation ensures it is just and limits the use of force and torture," she told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper in an interview.

She said Vietnam should give its citizens "the right to remain silent" in the future when there are "enough conditions" for it.

According to Hau, the lawyer, Vietnam's laws "indirectly" recognize the right to remain silent and the defendant's right to an attorney.

The Criminal Procedure Code stipulates that judicial agencies are responsible for proving guilt  and that defendants have the right to prove their innocence but are not obliged to, he said.

"A lawyer's presence should be compulsory during investigators' interrogation. And a record of the interrogation should only be valid once it is signed by the lawyer.

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