Vietnam cops using thugs for protection?

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Several instances of traffic police standing idly by as drivers who quarrel over their violations or attempt to film police activity are brutally assaulted by strangers indicate possible nexus between law enforcement and criminals

Three traffic police officers watch a man attacking a motorbike driver they had pulled over at the corner of Ton Duc Thang and Nguyen Huu Canh in Ho Chi Minh City's District 1. Photo: Nguyen Bao

Tran Van Hien was beaten to death by thugs soon after threatening to film Ho Chi Minh City traffic police as they seized his motorbike for drinking and driving.

Earlier on April 9, the 42-year-old man drank with two friends at a nearby restaurant. Soon after leaving, he was pulled over by traffic cops on Le Trong Tan Street in Tan Phu District. After quarreling with them for about 30 minutes during which he threatened to film and expose the cops, Hien left on a xe om (motorbike taxi).

According to investigators, Hien was attacked by two strange men on a scooter just 300 meters from where he had been pulled over. The frightened xe om driver fled the scene; bystanders took Hien to the hospital where he died from acute brain trauma.


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More than a week later, Le Thanh Bang, 36, and Le Van Tong, 18, turned themselves in to local police. They confessed that they wanted to take vengeance against Hien for quarreling with and daring to film the police.

Since then, several people have come forward with stories of shady men that hang out near police checkpoints and attack drivers who argue with traffic cops.

While the police have refused to comment on possible relationship between Bang and the traffic police, local media have learned that Bang owns a parking lot on Le Trong Tan Street that keeps vehicles impounded by the traffic police. The parking lot is located near the traffic police checkpoint where Hien was pulled over.

Many drivers caught violating traffic laws or involving in traffic accidents have asked Bang to help them retrieve their vehicles/driver's licenses from the traffic police early, VTC News quoted an anonymous driver as saying.

"It was due to this relationship that Bang beat Hien after witnessing him quarreling with the traffic police," the news website reported.

The Global Corruption Barometer 2013 said recently that the police force was the most corrupt institution in Vietnam. 

Cop worshipers

After covering Hien's case, Vietweek received numerous reports of HCMC drivers being pulled over by traffic cops, who were then beaten by thugs apparently posted beforehand near checkpoints.

While many of the incidents were recent, others had happened long ago, suggesting that such occurrences are not new.

Some traffic police allegedly left the scene before the attacks, while others witnessed the assaults without intervening.

Phung Viet Can of Thu Duc District told Vietweek that late last year, he was pulled over on Binh Thanh District's Nguyen Huu Canh Street.

He denied the traffic cops' accusation that he had driven through a red light, writing on his ticket that he began crossing the intersection as soon as the light turned yellow.

After an argument, one of the traffic cops threw Can's motorbike registration on the ground. When Can bent to pick it up, the cop removed the key from his bike.

The cop then allegedly made a phone call and threw Can his key before he and his colleagues left the scene.

"Soon after, a strange man grabbed my phone and removed its battery before beating me up, shouting: "˜Why didn't you pay? How dare you resist'?" Can said.

He said that after he was beaten up, his assailant made a phone call, telling whoever was on the other end that he had dealt with Can. Then he ordered Can to apologize to the two traffic cops, handing him the phone. Can said he attempted to apologize, but the other party had hung up the phone already.

Whistleblowers assaulted

Nguyen Ngoc Bach, 41, of Tan Binh District said he was lucky to escape an attack after filming traffic police pulling over vehicles in District 3 on January 18.

Bach said he filmed the cops from across the street because he suspected them of taking bribes.

"A man then stopped me and threatened to kill me if I continued filming. After I refused to do so, he took out a police club and attempted to beat me," he said.

Bach called the local police, who arrived on the scene and filed a report. Afterward, he and his attacker were allowed to leave.

"However, on the way home, five men on three motorbikes attempted to attack me but local residents were able to stop them," he said.

Following such complaints, Vietweek launched its own investigation and found unidentified men accompanying traffic police at checkpoints and attacking drivers who argued with them.

Vietweek reporters witnessed a man posing as a xe om driver following a group of traffic cops as they patrolled and set up checkpoints on Nguyen Huu Canh Street in District 1.

On June 28, the xe om impersonator and another unidentified man chased after and attacked Tran Van Hung, 29, who had been pulled over by the police.

Traffic cops stood nearby and watched the beating, only intervening when the attackers were about to assault Hung with a rock.

The police then returned Hung's motorbike registration to his friend that had accompanied him, as Hung kept his distance for fear of being attacked again.

Hung later told Vietweek that he had quarreled with the traffic police who had accused him of failing to signal when he took a turn at the corner of Ton Duc Thang and Nguyen Huu Canh streets.

Hung said the two men, pretending to be xe om drivers, attacked him after he threatened to call the press to inform them how the police had refused to return his motorbike registration paper. They insisted that the cops had never taken his registration paper in the first place, Hung said.

Many local residents have reported witnessing xe om impersonators accompanying traffic police and intimidating anyone attempting to photograph or videotape police activity.

Tran Thanh Tra, chief of the HCMC traffic police, told Vietweek Wednesday that the four police officers in Hung's case said they do not know the unidentified men who attacked him.

He said the four officers misunderstood that the two attackers were friends of Hung. An officer said he advised them to stop fighting and later helped break up the fight.

"Currently, there are some transport firm owners hiring people to follow patrolling traffic police to help drivers avoid being caught with violations," he said, adding that his agency is investigating the information reported by Vietweek and will strictly punish any officers found to have connections with vigilantes.

Tra said people can call his agency's hotline (08.3 838 7521) to report similar incidents.

Meanwhile, Truong Lam Danh, vice head of the legal branch of the HCMC People's Council, the municipal legislature, said the police should identify the men who followed the traffic police to verify if there is any relationship between them.

"Why didn't the police react when a "˜stranger' repeatedly followed them?" he asked, inferring some affiliation must exist between such men and the police.

"The police should clarify this relation to protect their image," he said.

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