Vietnam lawyers object to expanding police's rights to shoot

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Police officer Nguyen Viet Anh was pushed more than 100 meters down the road by a taxi driver in Hanoi in January 2010

Experts are concerned that a new proposal by the Ministry of Public Security that would allow police to shoot directly at "suspects who show signs of resistance" will lead to abuses of power.

The ministry said the public's defiance of officials on duty has become a more complicated issue recently, one which has severely damaged public security, as well as threatened the lives, health and dignity of authority figures.

Under the proposal, officials including police, members of the coast guard, forest rangers and naval officials, would be allowed to resort to firing directly upon suspects if, based on the available evidence, they believe a person resisting arrest might otherwise seriously endanger the lives or health of either the officers, or of those nearby.

The ministry said the proposal, which is currently polling public opinion before being submitted to the Prime Minister this June, aims to fulfill current regulations regarding the right of officers on duty to protect themselves and the public.

Tran Vi Dan, deputy director of the ministry's Legislation Department, said the right to shoot at suspects under a wider range of circumstances would allow officers to protect themselves in life-threatening situations.

But experts have disagreed, saying that the right to fire upon suspects already exists, and that expanding that right is not appropriate.

Pham Van Phat from the Hanoi Bar Association said the use of weapons, including simple ones, are specifically regulated in Ordinance No.16.

Phat said the ministry has confused "completing" existing laws with "changing" laws.

"There's no part in Ordinance 16 that says officers on duty can fire in response to "˜some signs' it says that officers may only fire upon targets in the process of committing dangerous acts such as attempting to rob an officer's gun," he said.

Ordinance No.16 allows direct shooting in cases the suspect directly threatens the lives of officers or other people with force or weapons including explosives; or who threaten to damage buildings connected to national security; or who are attempting to help a sentenced criminal escape from prison.

Phat said according to current Vietnamese laws, "signs" are just enough to place a suspect under investigation and the person will only be charged three or four months later.

"So if police officers can fire their guns just by sensing "˜signs,' there will be a lot of [negative] consequences.

"It's tantamount to a death sentence without a trial," he told Thanh Nien.

Under the proposal, officials must rely on ordinary support when the resistance of a suspect is "slightly serious," but can fire their weapons when it seems "severely serious." However, according to Phat, the ministry needs to set specific guidelines on what constitutes "serious."

His counterpart, Ha Hai, from the Ho Chi Minh City Bar Association also said the ministry should specify precisely which conditions justify direct shooting.

Hai said Ordinance 16 is sufficient legislation for officers to protect themselves.

He told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper that the new proposal would encourage officers to be impulsive, as it would allow them to shoot suspects based solely on how they "feel."

Nguyen Anh Son, a member of the National Assembly's Committee of National Defense and Security,  was quoted by Tuoi Tre as saying: "The concept of direct shooting would cause many people to worry about potential abuses."

Son said the abuse may not be deliberate, as many officials encountering resistance will not remain calm and will lack the clear head to make a sound decision as to whether firing upon a suspect is necessary.

Between 2002 and June last year, more than 13,700 people involved in 8,513 cases had defied officers on duty in Vietnam, according to official data, which said more than 90 percent of the suspects had resisted the police, most often traffic officers.

After a research project conducted by the World Bank and Vietnam's Government Inspectorate ranked the country's traffic police as the most corrupt unit in Vietnam, there have been efforts to improve their image, such as using female officers in prominent locations known for traffic congestion and more recently, removing obese officers from active duty.

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