Vietnam's death row inmates enduring a wait worse than death

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Vietnam has postponed its planned resumption of executions yet again after having approved the use of locally produced lethal injection drugs, leaving 568 death-row inmates tortured by uncertainty

Inmates working at the Nam Ha Prison in Ha Nam Province. Unable to import the lethal injection cocktail mandated by Vietnamese law for almost two years, the government has approved the use of locally-produced drugs, but new unnamed problems have emerged, prompting yet another delay. Photo by Ngoc Thang

Death-row prisoner Nguyen Tien Cong got tired of waiting for the state to kill him.

The 35-year-old man committed suicide in prison on June 15, two years after the Hai Phong People's Court sentenced him to death for killing a 61-year-old who caught him breaking into his house.

Executions were scheduled to resume last month, after having been delayed indefinitely since Vietnam shifted from the firing squad to lethal injection under the amended Law on Execution of Criminal Judgments that took effect on November 1, 2011.

The initial delays were the result of the European Union's refusal to sell the lethal drug cocktail Vietnamese law mandated must be used for executions. The government further amended its decree, which took effect June 27, to make way for the use of locally produced drugs.

However, executions were delayed once again last week, leaving 568 death-row inmates to wonder when the country would get around to killing them.


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Cao Ngoc Oanh, director of the central police department in charge of managing nationwide prisons, told the media on June 26 that "we are not ready to carry out with lethal injections."

According to Nguyen Xuan Truong, a Ministry of Health spokesman, the Drug Administration of Vietnam was appointed to manufacture lethal injection cocktails. However, he refused to provide further details, saying the matter was "classified".

While it is unclear when locally produced lethal injections will be administered, experts have said the continuance of delays has placed a tremendous amount of pressure on both death-row inmates and prison guards.

At a recent parliamentarian session, lawmaker Nguyen Van Hien said there are 76 people on death-row in Hanoi, while the city's facility where they are being held was only designed to house 62 prisoners.

"Many prisoners have been waiting to be executed for five to six years," he said, adding that many prisoners have been begging to be executed.

Nguyen Hoa Binh, chief of the Supreme People's Procuracy, Vietnam's highest prosecutors' agency, even proposed further amending the law to allow for either the firing squad or lethal injection to be used.

Deathly uncertainty

No matter which method the state settles on, many death-row prisoners said they want to be executed as soon as possible rather than live with the terror that comes with awaiting an unknown execution day.

Colonel Nguyen Duy Duc, superintendent of the Bac Giang police's detention center, said in a recent report in Lao Dong (Labor) newspaper that a convict condemned to death for drug crimes named Ngoc has been "very demanding" and "irritable" recently.

She is especially particular about her towel, insisting it must have a picture of a rose and not be too large or too small. If she is not given such a towel, she throws it away, screaming in protest.

Ngoc is known to keep her urine and excrement in a bucket in her room in order to throw it at the prison staff.

For the last few days she has been screaming constantly and refusing food, demanding that she be transferred to a new cell and assigned a new guard.

Another prisoner has been crying loudly, claiming to be crazy and in need of hospitalization.

One female prisoner cries and screams whenever a jailer gives her a copy of her favorite newspaper.

One only eats rice with monosodium glutamate, but cries and screams if given an alternate seasoning.

Nguyen Duy Bien has repeatedly attempted to commit suicide. He once tore his clothes to make a noose and hang himself, but fell when the makeshift death instrument gave way.

He hit his head on the wall twice and stabbed himself in a vein with a coat hanger, but again the attempts failed.

Elsewhere in the country, at least four inmates have killed themselves while waiting to be executed.

"Release me or kill me immediately, please. Either is ok, but waiting to be executed is even scarier than death," said one inmate.

Scrap death penalty?

Meanwhile, international experts are urging Vietnam to take this latest delay as an opportunity to scrap the death penalty altogether, saying it is not a deterrent anyway.

Vietnam modified the Penal Code in 2009 to reduce the number of criminal offences eligible for the death penalty from 30 to 23.

As of 2012, eight of the 21 countries worldwide which were still carrying out executions were located in the Asia Pacific region.

Maja Kocijancic, an EU spokesperson, said the bloc is "firmly opposed to the death penalty in all cases and under all circumstances, regardless of the crimes committed."

In an email to Vietweek, the EU suggested Vietnam formalize its de facto moratorium on capital punishment, rather than go ahead with its plan to use locally made lethal injections.

Janice Beanland, Amnesty International's campaigner for Vietnam, maintained that "there is no evidence that the death penalty works as a particular deterrent for crime."

Although there are no official statistics, the death penalty is most frequently handed down in Vietnam to those convicted of drug offences and murder.

According to a recent report issued by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Vietnamese drug law enforcement agencies arrested 31,419 people involved in drug related crimes last year, an 18 percent increase over 2011.

Meanwhile, according to the Ministry of Public Security, extremely cruel murder cases in Vietnam have been on the rise. The media has also been carrying story after story of people not hesitating to kill others for the most insignificant reasons.

With the debate over the effectiveness of the death penalty in deterring crime becoming more voluble in recent years in the country, Beanland said: "Vietnam should perhaps be seeking advice from those countries that do not use the death penalty on how to effectively manage its criminal justice system."

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By Vietweek Staff, Thanh Nien News (The story can be found in the July 5th issue of our print edition Vietweek) 

* AN DIEN contributed to this report

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