A horrified, almost unbelieving citizenry has been left asking what went wrong after the macabre details of torture inflicted on a 14-yearold boy came out last week.
Nguyen Hoang Anh, who worked for a couple at a shrimp farm in Phu Hiep Hamlet in the southern Ca Mau Province's Dam Doi District, told the police and authorities a story that would make Oliver Twist's minders shudder with horror.
As Thanh Nien reporters observed, Anh, who looked smaller than a boy of his age, had innumerable scars on his body, including his face. His wrists and ankles were covered with traces of ropes tied tight, and his hand and legs were swollen.
Initial investigations show that Anh had been working for Huynh Thanh Giang, 30, and his wife, 33-year-old Ma Ngoc Thom for about 20 months and has been abused since early last year, said Vo Van Chac, a police officier of Dam Doi District.
The boy, who is now receiving treatment at the Dam Doi hospital in the eponymous district, said: "Uncle Giang first hit me with an oar until it broke, then pressed a hot iron on my body, and then strangled me with a rope till I lost consciousness."
Having hot water poured on him, being tied up under the hot sun, having his genitals beaten with a hot iron stick, and his teeth pulled out with pincers were among other punishments Anh had to endure.
Hospital staff said many of the wounds on Anh's body had become septic.
"Uncle [Giang] beat me whenever I worked slowly. When he wasn't happy, he would also beat me."
The wife, meanwhile, often asked him to clean the floor with a rope tied around his neck, and would pull the rope, making him fall down whenever he cleaned slowly, he said.
Anh told the police he was also made to work with large hammers tied around his ankles and forced to carry stones on his head while working.
"I would be beaten immediately if I let the stones fall down," the boy said.
According to Chac, the boy was even ordered to drink his own urine from a bottle as a punishment whenever the couple found him urinating into a bottle, adding Anh couldn't help doing so because he wasn't allowed to go to the bathroom
Scars and infected sores on 14-year-old Nguyen Hoang Anh's body. Police in the southern province of Ca Mau say Anh had been tortured for over a year by a couple running a shrimp farm where he worked.
"But what I was afraid of most was being splashed with cleanser used to clean shrimp tanks after being beaten, because it made my injuries more painful," Anh said.
Asked why he didn't run away or tell others, the boy said he didn't dare to do so, because Giang and Thom said that his mother owed them money, so he had to work to pay the debt off.
Giang also threatened to have gangsters punish him if he ran away, so Anh didn't dare to leave.
"Whenever I was beaten, I missed my mother and my younger brother a lot, but all I could do was to cry at night," said the boy, who slept and ate on the floor near the bathroom.
Pham Thi Thoa, Anh's mother, said her husband had left her when she was pregnant. After giving birth to Anh and his twin brother, she sent them to her mother Dang Thi Dep, so she could work in Ca Mau Town, where she met Giang and Thom.
In September, 2008 Thoa sent her son to work for them for VND500,000 (US$26.37) a month, because their family was very poor.
She visited her son twice in the first two months that he began working for them, but was not able to do so again because she was too poor to afford the fare to travel from Cai Nuoc District, where she lives, to Dam Doi District [a distance of more than 30km]. She said she had later called Giang several times and suggested that he send her son home, but the latter always said there was too much work at the farm for him to let Anh go.
Giang's farm, as also his house, is kept open only on the riverfront side, and Anh was ordered to hide himself behind the shrimp tanks [used to breed shrimp fry] whenever other people came home, so locals were unaware of the couple's acts for a long time, according to a local official who declined to be named.
One person who lives nearby said she sometimes saw Anh's injuries when he came to put the washing out, but she didn't dare to alarm authorities, afraid that Giang would take revenge on her. Giang had earlier threatened a neighbor several times saying he would ask gangsters to inflict violence.
Some residents said they'd recently learned that Giang and Thom took turns torturing Anh 3- 4 times a day, as the couple began abusing the boy more openly, but they also didn't dare to take any action until April 27 when they found Anh had been beaten more severely than usual.
Asked about the abuse, Ly Thai Trieu, head of Phu Hiep Hamlet police, said he had visited Giang's house many times but he didn't see anything wrong with Anh.
Truong Van Tam, secretary of Phu Hiep Hamlet's party unit, said an anonymous person once called him to inform that Giang had kicked the boy into the river and then tied him up under the sun.
Together with local police and authorities, Tam had visited Giang's farm on April 27, but Anh had hidden himself.
The team wrote a report and asked the couple to sign it but the latter refused, with the wife saying they were not abusing the kid, just educating him. They also said they could "tear off" the report anytime they wanted, it would cost "just a few dozen million" to settle the case.
Lu Minh Tri, the police chief of Ngoc Chanh Commune, where the Phu Hiep Hamlet is based, was quoted by the Tuoi Tre newspaper as saying that he then reported the case to his superiors, asking for reinforcements. They rescued the boy the next morning.
Punished for being rude
Giang has been taken into custody by the police for an investigation into allegations of torture, but his wife has been allowed to remain at home because her child is less than two years old, police officer Chac said.
Thom, however, has also been placed under investigation. Chac said the couple have admitted kicking Anh into the river and tying him up under the sun. They have also confessed to splashing hot water on the boy's back, putting hot coals into his mouth and pulling out five of his teeth. They said they'd punished him because he was rude to them, he added.
Speaking with Thanh Nien, the wife blamed the torture and punishments to their being hot-tempered.
Chac said local police would conduct a thorough investigation into the case.
Nguyen Tuan Sinh, vice director of Ca Mau Province Department of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs said they would discuss sending Anh to a local childcare center if his family agreed they couldn't raise him.
Anh's case has raised concerns about shortcomings in the province's care and protection of children, mainly the shortage of staff, Sinh said.
Ca Mau has launched a program training volunteers in childcare, he said, adding that a network of volunteers will be established in all localities next year.
Public reaction to Anh's plight has been one of disbelief, anger and sadness.
"It's so sad that local people saw Giang and Thom torture Anh without alerting local authorities and let it last for such a long time," one reader wrote to Thanh Nien.
"Where are the responsibilities of authorities? And where are the responsibilities of the family sending its child to work without caring about his working and living conditions?"
Another reader complained that authorities were just too far away from people, letting incidents like this happen without being aware of them.
"It's too cruel and inhuman to torture a child to an extent that his face has been distorted like that [ ... ] It's so heart-wrenching," reader Nguyen Tien Trung wrote.
Le Ngoc Tan from Ho Chi Minh City wrote: "Even though I have read the story many times, I cannot believe it's a true story."
In the afternoon of May 3, lots of angry people surrounded the couple's house to protest their acts, prompting Dam Doi District police to escort Thom to the police station and protect her from possible mob fury.
Weeping upon hearing about the torture her son had to undergo, Thoa, mother lamented the poverty that had forced her to send him to work. She said she felt ashamed that she could not protect and take care of her son.
"I sent him to work so he could learn skills to earn a living, but I didn't expect this (that her son would be tortured)," Thoa told local newspaper Kinh te do thi.
"All I wish is that my son will recover and become as healthy as when I gave birth to him."
Nguyen Thanh Binh, head of Ngoc Chanh Commune which manages Phu Hiep Hamlet, said Thoa had filed a petition asking Dam Doi District police not to press criminal charges against Giang and Thom.
The mother said after her son was hospitalized, the couple had met with her and asked her to sign the petition in exchange for VND20 million (US$1,055).
They also threatened to take revenge on her if she refused to do so, she added.
The forensic department in Ca Mau on Tuesday reported that the physical damage inflicted on Anh covered 66.83 percent of his body. Giang and Thom have been charged with "deliberately injuring others" and "sabotaging others' health".
Under Vietnamese law, the offence is punishable between five to 15 years, according to lawyer Truong Xuan Tam, deputy head of the Ba Ria -Vung Tau Province Bar Association.
In an interview with local newspaper Nguoi Lao Dong, Dr Nguyen Thanh Long, deputy director of the Dam Doi General Hospital, said he has never treated a patient who'd been so cruelly tortured before.
While the boy is recovering physically, his manual working capacity will be limited due to critical injuries, Long said.
Worse still, it's very likely that he will have lifetime mental suffering and face difficulties in integrating into the mainstream community, he added.