Vigilantes tread shaky legal ground

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Lawyers say lack of regulations covering vigilante actions pose threat to security


  A vigilante with a robber he apprehended on a street in Ho Chi Minh City. Experts say the lack of a legal framework for the actions of anti-crime clubs can create more risks for the vigilantes themselves and for society as a whole.

A robber snatches the necklace of a woman in Thuan An District in the southern province of Binh Duong and speeds away.

Two men on a motorbike nearby give chase immediately and crash into the thief's bike although he used a police siren illegally installed on his bike and threw chili powder at his chasers.

The chasers are neither plainclothes cops nor ordinary civilians who happened to witness the crime. They are among more than a hundred Hiep si duong pho (vigilantes or literally, street knights) in Binh Duong the first province in Vietnam to establish anti-crime clubs that have members patrolling the streets and hunting for robbers.

Way back in 1997, some vigilantes in the province's Phu Hoa Ward formed a group to support each other after they managed to catch several robbers. Gradually, the model was duplicated in other wards in Binh Duong as well as Ho Chi Minh City.

In 2006, Binh Duong authorities issued a decision stipulating that these clubs would operate under ward-level People's Committees, the local governments. Recently, two other localities, Hanoi and Dong Nai, announced that they were planning to duplicate the model after studying it for several months.

However, many people are not convinced that this is a good thing. They argue that fighting crime and criminals is the basic job of the police and cannot be left to vigilantes who lack professional training as well as knowledge of relevant regulations.

The concerns over vigilantism have escalated after a recent incident in which ten vigilantes from Binh Duong were summoned by District 12 police in Ho Chi Minh City on suspicion of "appropriating property." They pled not guilty and claimed they were just attempting to help a local man get back a stolen car.

Nguyen Thanh Hai, head of the Phu Hoa Ward Anti-crime Club and one of the summoned, said it all started when a strange man identifying himself as Dinh Dac Loc called him on August 17 to ask for help.

Loc claimed he had rented out a Toyota seven-seater to a man but the latter refused to return it and demanded VND240 million to give it back.

Hai and nine other men in the club secretly accompanied Loc to the spot where he paid the money to some people and got the car back. Hai then went with Loc in the car to report the case to police in District 12's Trung My Tay Ward. His men followed the people who collected the money and took it back. They also brought the suspects to the police station and handed the money to the police.

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At the station, a police officer told them that they could not handle the case because the exchange of cash and car had happened in another locality (a cafe in District 10), Hai said. Disappointed by the police's response, they left Loc and the other people at the police station, he added.

A District 12 police spokesperson told Vietweek that they are searching for Loc and that the role of the ten "heroes" will be clarified after they question him.

Whatever the merits of this case, whether Loc is guilty or not and what the vigilantes' role was in the whole affair, experts say it highlights problems of having vigilante anti-crime clubs.

Nguyen Van Minh Tien, possibly the most well-known vigilante in HCMC, where there are no official anti-crime clubs, said Hai's group was totally wrong because he should have instructed Loc to report the matter to the investigative police.

"Hiep si duong pho are supposed to take action against crimes like robbery when they take place and take the culprits to the police," he said. Some of the vigilantes in Binh Duong have even gotten themselves involved in busting fake cooking gas producers and prostitution dens, he said.

Tien said he has asked local police to verify the background of any man asking to join his group. He has also supported his men with fees for petrol and meals when they patrol. He said he has a fund of nearly VND200 million, half of which is his money, left over from more than VND1 billion
that a bank gave him to buy a house. The other half came from donations from local residents or rewards from robber's victims. He has found jobs as guards for many of his men. They can do the patrolling during their free time, he said.

Both Tien and Hai have received accolades from high-ranking officials. Tien was called "a hero in the fight against criminals" by former Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet, and Hai has received a certificate of merit in 2010 from the then President Nguyen Minh Triet.

Legal risks

Meanwhile, lawyers say there is no legal framework that covers the actions of anti-crime clubs and that their operation may result in even higher risks for themselves and the society, because they are not professionals.

Phan Trung Hoai, a member of the Vietnam Bar Association, said he was "really concerned" about the legality of anti-crime clubs, although the public, including himself, support the actions of vigilantes in fighting crime.

"There has been no clear regulation about the organization and operations of these clubs," he said.

The lack of clarity about the legal status of vigilantes could lead to abuses of power or misunderstandings about their duties, Hoai said.

Commenting on Tien's proposal that vigilantes should only chase and catch criminals when they see the crime being committed, Hoai said he has for long been warning about the possible dangers to residents if the vigilantes, who are untrained, chase criminals on crowded streets.

"In order to fight against a risk, they can cause a higher risk," he said, adding that some vigilantes could also become criminals.

On August 28, a HCMC court sentenced three vigilantes to between 18 and 30 months in jail for accepting VND124 million from two robbers in order to let them go after a robbery near Binh Dien Market on June 25, 2011.

"There is no mechanism to supervise them. And their knowledge of law is limited because they are not properly trained," Hoai said.

There have also been instances where the police have sometimes made wrongful arrests and finally the arrested have had all charges dropped against them.

"It is even easier for the vigilantes to make subjective and inaccurate judgments, leading to wrong arrests. This is a big risk," he said.

Hoai also said that their actions exposed the vigilantes to the risk of injury and even death.

"There is no special policy for them when they are injured or die when fighting criminals," he said.

On August 31, 2010, Nguyen Xuan Chinh and another vigilante patrolling Tuong Binh Hiep Commune in Binh Duong's Thu Dau Mot Town saw a man carrying a knife riding a motorbike.

The duo chased after the suspect after he refused to follow them to the police station. The suspect kicked their bike and they crashed into a truck. Chinh was killed on the spot while the other vigilante suffered serious injuries.

Lawyer Nguyen Van Hau, deputy chairman of the HCMC Jurists' Association, also said there were insufficient legal grounds on which anti-crime clubs could function.

"The model has a significant meaning in fighting crime and maintaining social security. But to make it more effective, relevant regulations are needed," he told Vietweek.

He said such regulations should focus on improving the management of these clubs, and offering training in relevant laws.

"Otherwise the barrier between being innocent and guilty is very thin."

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