Teenager kills himself after police coerce robbery confession in Vietnam's Central Highlands

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Hoang Thi Hong burns an incense stick at the altar of her 15-year-old son Le Hoang Trieu Khang, who killed himself on August 19 after he allegedly was mentally and physically coerced by police into confessing he stole VND5 million from a neighbor / PHOTO COURTESY OF TUOI TRE

Police in the Central Highlands province of Lam Dong have been accused of violently forcing a 15-year-old boy to admit to stealing VND5 million (US$236), leading the latter to commit suicide. 

Le Hoang Trieu Khang of Dam B'ri Commune hung himself on August 19, leaving behind a suicide note saying that he did so to prove his innocence, the Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reported on Friday.

Khang's parents told the newspaper that the boy insisted he had not stolen the money from Dau Van Nhau, a resident of their village.

He had only signed a confession that was coerced out of him with verbal threats and violent slapping, they said. 

Le Van Lam, the father, also said his son was very young and was taken to police station for questioning without the presence of any legal guardian.

Commune authorities and involved police officers say the questioning was done under "regulated procedures," the newspaper reported.

Police of Bao Loc Town, which manages the commune, are investigating the case.

According to Tuoi Tre, Nhau, informed Dam B'ri police that he had VND5 million stolen on August 16.

The report quotes Nhau as saying he learnt from one of Khang's friends, identified only as L.D.T, that Khang had admitted to stealing VND15,000 from Nhau the same day. 

On August 18, T. asked Khang to go out with him, but drove him to Nhau's house, where Dinh Quang Vinh, a police officer with Dam B'ri, and Nguyen Phuc Khanh, a village officer, were waiting to question the 15-year-old buy, the newspaper reported.

Khang denied then that he had stolen VND5 million, but admitted to taking VND21,000, Nhau told the newspaper. 

The officers then took the boy to the police station for further questioning, and about an hour later Khang's mother Hoang Thi Hong came there to pick her son up, Vinh told Tuoi Tre.

The police had called one of Hong's neighbors and asked him to tell the mother to take her son home, the newspaper said.  

Hong said when she arrived at the station, Khang had finished writing a report on his robbery, and was sitting in a corner of the room with frightened look.

She said she signed  her son's report after being asked to do so by the police. In the report, Khang admitted he had stolen the money, spent VND1.5 million and kept the rest at home.

Hong drove Khang home with the two officers to get the money.

However, on their way home, Khang told her that he had not stolen the money and had made the confession because the officers had frightened him. He said one officer continuously slapped his face and verbally threatened him.

Because they could not find the money at Khang's house, the police asked Hong and her son to return to the police station the next day for further questioning.

On August 19 morning Khang rewrote his report, saying that he had stolen only VND21,000.

However, an officer, who was later identified as Nguyen Thanh Van, shouted and threatened to take Khang into custody, and inform his school of the case, if he failed to write "exactly" what he did to break Nhau's safe and steal the money, Hong said.

According to Hong, Van's threats also frightened her, so she asked him and Vinh to allow her to take her son home and pledged that she would return the money to Nhau, if her son had truly taken it.

Hong said they were not allowed to go home until around noon, adding that on their way home, Khang told her that Van was the one who had slapped him the day before.

After they went home, Khang hung himself.

Vinh claimed that he had taken Khang to the police station for questioning without informing of his parents because he did not know that the boy was only 15 years old, the newspaper reported.

He also said that he had taken Khang to the station out of concern that Nhau's family would beat him if he admitted to stealing the money from Nhau's house.

"I did nothing wrong here, so I have no reason to feel guilty or say sorry to anyone," Vinh said.

Van, the other officer, also claimed he did not shout and beat Khang as accused, adding that he had only passed by the room where Vinh was questioning Khang.

Previously, Tran Thien Thuat, head of Dam B'ri Commune's police division, rejected accusations that the police had used violence against Khang, although he said "Van had only pushed Khang's head down," Tuoi Tre reported.

Lawyer Nguyen Thanh Luong, vice chairman of the Ben Tre Bar Association in the Mekong Delta, said there was insufficient evidence and legal grounds to say Khang was guilty of robbery.

Furthermore, the boy had written his confession without the presence of his legal guardians.

However, it is possible to charge involved people with accidentally causing the death of others by violating professional codes of conduct or administrative regulations.

Lawyer Tran Hong Phong with the Ho Chi Minh City's Bar Association agreed, saying Dam B'ri police had violated the Penal Code which stipulates that the questioning of people aged 14-16 can only be undertaken in the presence of their legal guardians.

Moreover, commune police do not have authority to investigate criminal cases (robbery is a criminal act), and can only perform initial procedures in case they catch suspects in the act, he said.

Commune police had taken Khang to the police station like a criminal on "baseless suspicions," Phong said.

The police were also wrong to shout and threaten him when he changed his confession the next day, because under the law, he had every right to do so, Phong added.

He said the evidence shows that Dam B'ri commune police not only violated laws but also displayed poor professionalism and moral conduct.

"Obviously, the commune police's violations were the reason why Khang committed suicide."

It is, therefore, "necessary" that violators be strictly punished, Phong said.

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