Legal system: civil law system. The civil code of 2005 reflects a European-style civil law. International law organization participation: Vietnam has not submitted an ICJ jurisdiction declaration. It is a non-party state to the International Criminal Court.

Vietnam's judicial bodies are the Supreme People's Court, the local People's Courts at the provincial, district, and city levels, the military tribunals, and the People's Organs of Control. At the apex of the judicial system is the Supreme People’s Court (SPC), which is the highest court for appeal and review. The SPC reports to the National Assembly, which controls the judiciary’s budget and confirms the president’s nominees to the SPC and Supreme People’s Procuracy. The Supreme People’s Procuracy issues arrest warrants, sometimes retroactively. Below the SPC are district and provincial people’s courts, military tribunals, and administrative, economic, and labor courts. The people’s courts are the courts of first instance. The Ministry of Defense (MOD) has military tribunals, which have the same rules as civil courts. Military judges and assessors are selected by the MOD and SPC, but the SPC has supervisory responsibility. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Local people's courts function at each administrative level except at the village level, where members of the village administrative committees serve in a judicial capacity. Proceedings of local courts are presided over by people's assessors. The Supreme People's Court is the highest tribunal and is charged with the supervision of subordinate courts. As a court of first instance, it tries cases involving high treason or other crimes of a serious nature; and as the highest court of appeals, it reviews cases originating with the lower courts. Appeals are infrequent, however, because lower courts tend to act as final arbiters. The Supreme People's Court chief justice is elected by the National Assembly on the recommendation of the president for a five-year term. *

The Supreme People's Organs of Control function as watchdogs of the state and work independently of all other government agencies, although they are nominally responsible to the National Assembly. They are subordinate to the People's Supreme Organ of Control also known as the People's Supreme Procurate, which, in turn, is headed by a chief procurator or procurator general. These organs exercise extraordinary powers of surveillance over government agencies at every level, including the court system and agencies for law enforcement. *

Under special circumstances, such as showcase trials involving breaches of national security, the National Assembly or the Council of State may set up special tribunals. Judges are elected for a term equivalent to that of the bodies that elected them, and trials are held with the participation of people's assessors, who may also act as judges. The Constitution guarantees defendants the right to plead their cases. Cases are prosecuted by a procurator. *

A new Penal Code was adopted in January 1986, replacing a 1950 code of justice based on the French Civil Code. Under the new code, crime is defined very broadly. Authorities interpret a wide range of antisocial behavior as potentially criminal, such as graft, petty corruption, hoarding, and currency malpractice.

Courts in Vietnam have a maximum of 30 days before taking a decision on a case. Sometimes defendants appear wearing green and white-striped prison pyjamas. Sometimes trials last only a few hours. The outcome is scripted in advance. It is not unusual for suspects in politically-related crimes to be held incommunicado for 15 months before being brought to trial. See Nam Cam Trial Under Organized Crime in Vietnam

In Vietnam, convicts serving suspended sentences are effectively placed under house arrest, with severe restrictions on their movements and a requirement to check in regularly with police.

Problems with the Vietnamese Justice System

In Vietnam today, police still make midnight raids, suspect languish in jail for a year or more awaiting trial, citizens have to be capful about what they say, political prisoners still receive long sentence for vague crimes such as "counterrevolutionary propaganda." Sources quoted in newspapers often do so anonymously because they are worried of the repercussions of disclosing something the Vietnamese government wants to keep quiet.

Although the constitution provides for independent judges and lay assessors (who lack administrative training), the U.S. Department of State maintains that Vietnam lacks an independent judiciary, in part because the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) selects judges and vets them for political reliability. Moreover, the party seeks to influence the outcome of cases involving perceived threats to the state or the party’s dominant position. In an effort to increase judicial independence, the government transferred local courts from the Ministry of Justice to the SPC in September 2002. However, the Department of State saw no evidence that the move actually achieved the stated goal. Vietnam’s judiciary also is hampered by a shortage of lawyers and rudimentary trial procedures. The death penalty often is imposed in cases of corruption and drug trafficking. [Source: Library of Congress]

According to Human Rights Watch: “ Vietnamese courts remain under the firm control of the government and the Vietnam Communist party, and lack independence and impartiality. Political and religious dissidents are often tried without the assistance of legal counsel in proceedings that fail to meet international fair trial standards. Defense lawyers who take on politically sensitive cases are intimidated, harassed, debarred, and imprisoned. [Source:Human Rights Watch World Report 2012]

Amnesty International has had grave concerns for many years about the independence and impartiality of the Vietnamese judicial system. Some of these concerns were also raised by the recent UN Human Rights Committee report: "The Committee is concerned that the judicial system remains weak due to the scarce number of qualified professionally trained lawyers, lack of resources for the judiciary and their susceptibility to political pressure." Amnesty International believes that trials in Viet Nam are routinely unfair, especially trials of such a high level of sensitivity. [Source: Amnesty International, December 18, 2002 *]

Whilst there are legal provisions for the role of defenders and the presumption of innocence, however these provisions appear not to be observed in practice, particularly for people detained for their alleged political activities. Despite legal reforms, little change has been witnessed in the conduct of political trials which continue to fall far short of international standards. Often held in camera, defendants frequently do not have the right to present a proper defense, to call and question witnesses or to choose a lawyer. Defense lawyers are often assigned to prisoners just before a trial begins, thus denying them adequate time to prepare their case. In addition, defense lawyers are often not permitted to do more in the court than plead for clemency on behalf of their client. The authorities still use measures such as prolonged detention or house-arrest without trial to silence political dissent. *

Pretrial Detention in Vietnam

According to the U.S. Department of State: The investigative period typically lasted from three months for less serious offenses (punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment) to 16 months for exceptionally serious offenses (punishable by more than 15 years’ imprisonment or capital punishment) or more than two years for national security cases. However, at times investigations lasted indefinitely. By law the procuracy may also request additional two-month periods of detention after an investigation to consider whether to prosecute a detainee or ask police to investigate further. Investigators sometimes used physical abuse, isolation, excessively lengthy interrogation sessions, and sleep deprivation to compel detainees to confess. [Source: 2011 Human Rights Reports: Vietnam, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor,U.S. Department of State; 2011 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices Report, May 24, 2012 ***]

By law detainees are permitted access to lawyers from the time of their detention; however, authorities used bureaucratic delays to deny access to legal counsel. In cases investigated under national security laws, authorities prohibited defense lawyers’ access to clients until after an investigation had ended and the suspect had been formally charged with a crime, most often after approximately four months. Under regulations, investigations may be continued and access to counsel denied for more than two years. In addition a scarcity of trained lawyers and insufficient protection of defendant rights made prompt detainee access to an attorney rare. In practice only juveniles and persons formally charged with capital crimes were assigned lawyers. ***

Attorneys must be informed of and allowed to attend interrogations of their clients. However, a defendant first must request the presence of a lawyer, and it was unclear whether authorities always informed defendants of this right. Attorneys also must be given access to case files and be permitted to make copies of documents. Attorneys were sometimes able to exercise these rights. ***

Police generally informed families of detainees’ whereabouts, but family members could visit a detainee only with the permission of the investigator, and this permission was not regularly granted. During the investigative period, authorities routinely denied detainees access to family members, especially in national security cases. Before a formal indictment, detainees also have the right to notify family members, although a number of detainees suspected of national security violations were held incommunicado. There is no functioning bail system or equivalent system of conditional release. Time spent in pretrial detention counts toward time served upon conviction and sentencing. ***

Courts may sentence persons to administrative detention of up to five years after completion of a sentence. In addition police or mass organizations can propose that one of five “administrative measures” be imposed by people’s committee chairpersons at district and provincial levels without a trial. The measures include terms ranging from six to 24 months in either juvenile reformatories or adult detention centers and generally were applied to repeat offenders with a record of minor offenses, such as committing petty theft or “humiliating other persons.” Terms of 24 months were standard for drug users and prostitutes. Individuals sentenced to detention facilities were forced to meet work quotas to pay for services and detention costs. Chairpersons may also impose terms of “administrative probation,” which generally took the form of restriction on movement and travel. Authorities continued to punish some individuals using vaguely worded national security provisions of the law. ***

Trial Procedures in Vietnam

According to the U.S. Department of State: The constitution provides that citizens are innocent until proven guilty, although many lawyers complained that judges generally presumed guilt. Trials generally were open to the public, but in sensitive cases judges closed trials or strictly limited attendance. Juries are not used. [Source: 2011 Human Rights Reports: Vietnam, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor,U.S. Department of State; 2011 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices Report, May 24, 2012 ***]

The public prosecutor brings charges against an accused person and serves as prosecutor during trials. Defendants have the right to be present and have a lawyer at trial, although not necessarily the lawyer of their choice, and this right was generally upheld in practice. Defendants unable to afford a lawyer generally were provided one only in cases involving a juvenile offender or with possible sentences of life imprisonment or capital punishment. The defendant or defense lawyer has the right to cross-examine witnesses, but there were cases in which neither defendants nor their lawyers were allowed to have access to government evidence in advance of the trial, cross-examine witnesses, or challenge statements. Defense lawyers commonly had little time before trials to examine evidence against their clients. In national security cases, judges occasionally silenced defense lawyers who were making arguments on behalf of their clients in court because the judges deemed the arguments reactionary. Convicted persons have the right to appeal. District and provincial courts did not publish their proceedings, but the Supreme People’s Court continued to publish the proceedings of all cases it reviewed. ***

There continued to be credible reports that authorities pressured defense lawyers not to take as clients any religious or democracy activists facing trial. Human rights lawyers were restricted, harassed, arrested, disbarred, and in some cases detained for representing political activists. For example, on August 12, the Dak Lak Bar Association dismissed Huynh Van Dong for serving as a defense lawyer in May for two defendants charged with subversive acts against the state. Additionally, given their previous convictions, lawyers Le Tran Luat, Le Thi Cong Nhan, and Le Quoc Quan were not permitted to practice law. During the April trial of activist Cu Huy Ha Vu, one of his attorneys (Tran Vu Hai) accused the Hanoi People’s Court of violating criminal procedure by refusing to publicize the documents by which the court made its accusation. When the court refused to drop the charges and declare a mistrial, activist Vu sent his lawyers away in protest; the court found him guilty and sentenced him to seven years in prison. ***

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

According to the U.S. Department of State: There is no clear or effective mechanism for pursuing a civil action to redress or remedy abuses committed by authorities. Civil suits are heard by administrative, civil, and criminal courts, all of which follow the same procedures as in criminal cases and are adjudicated by members of the same body of judges and lay assessors. All three levels were subject to corruption, lack of independence, and inexperience. [Source: 2011 Human Rights Reports: Vietnam, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor,U.S. Department of State; 2011 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices Report, May 24, 2012 ***]

By law a citizen seeking to press a complaint regarding a human rights violation by a civil servant is required first to petition the officer accused of committing the violation for permission to refer the complaint to the administrative courts. If a petition is refused, the citizen may refer it to the officer’s superior. If the officer or his superior agrees to allow the complaint to be heard, the matter is taken up by the administrative courts. If the administrative courts agree that the case should be pursued, it is referred either to the civil courts for suits involving physical injury seeking redress of less than 20 percent of health-care costs resulting from the alleged abuse, or to the criminal courts for redress of more than 20 percent of such costs. In practice this elaborate system of referral and permission ensured that citizens had little effective recourse to civil or criminal judicial procedures to remedy human rights abuses, and few legal experts had experience with the system. The government continued to disallow the use of class action lawsuits against government ministries, thus limiting land rights petitioners from sending joint complaints to numerous government agencies.

Reforms of the Justice System in Vietnam

Ben Stocking wrote in The Mercury News, Various international donors, from the World Bank to the United Nations to the U.S. Agency for International Development, are funding an array of projects aimed at strengthening Vietnam's legal system and making its government more open and responsive. "Vietnam can't succeed economically unless it has clean, effective government,'' said Jordan Ryan, the director of the U.N. Development Program office in Vietnam. The work of these groups, however important, will seem mundane alongside the sordid spectacle that will unfold in Ho Chi Minh City this week. [Source: Ben Stocking, The Mercury News, February 24, 2003]

In October 2006, AFP reported: "Vietnam has decided to abolish a draconian measure allowing detention without trial, ahead of U.S. President George W. Bush’s visit to the communist state in November, a US official told AFP. The measure that was abolished was the so-called "administrative detention decree 31/CP," which Hanoi has used to hold many dissidents, and democracy and rights activists. It allows local officials and police to detain any person up to two years without trial in the name of protecting national security. Washington had made the removal of the decade-old decree a top priority in its human rights dialogue with Vietnam that was resumed in February 2006. [Source: AFP, October 30, 2006]

Michael Orona, the State Department’s deputy director of the bureau of democracy, human rights and labor, told AFP, "This would mean that the government cannot use this decree to detain an individual any longer and that they would have to actually provide a rule of law access and due process." With the decree’s removal, "whoever is detained will have to know what they are being detained for and be given an opportunity to go to court and to meet with a lawyer — rights which were not granted before," said Orona.

Concerted pressure from the Vietnamese democracy movement, international human rights groups and western governments prodded the Vietnamese government to repeal the harsh decree, said Diem Do, the US-based chairman of Viet Tan, a pro-democracy party with members inside Vietnam. "We must continue to draw attention to the Hanoi regime’s abuse of the legal system to carry out political repression," he said. Viet Tan was among the first groups to alert the US Congress about the decree when it was first issued in 1997 and had been lobbying for years to get it scrapped.

Briton’s Kafka-esque Ordeal in Vietnam’s Legal System

In 2007, The Telegraph reported: “British consular officials in Vietnam have written to the Vietnamese government to protest about the treatment of a British businessman who is being forced to endure a Kafka-esque ordeal after his trial on fraud charges was postponed last month for the fourth time in three years. Peter Laking, 59, originally from West Sussex, has been charged with defrauding two former business partners of $285,000 (£143,000) and could face a jail sentence of ten years or more if convicted. Mr Laking, who moved to Vietnam in 1993 to set up a quarrying business, has insisted he has done nothing wrong and is determined to clear his name. But friends say Mr Laking, who suffered a stroke nine months ago, is growing increasingly frustrated at his inability to defend himself in open court. [Source: Ben Bland, The Telegraph, July 31, 2007 /^]

“The fourth attempt to try Mr Laking began on June 12, but the trial came to a halt after just an hour when the prosecutor said that he had insufficient evidence to prosecute at this stage and was granted an extension to carry out further investigation by the judge. Fair Trials Abroad, the campaign group, says that the ongoing delays are unacceptable. It is also unhappy with a number of other aspects of the trial, which it believes show that the prosecution is struggling to make a case against Mr Laking. /^\

“The campaign group, which has been providing Mr Laking with legal assistance, says that when Mr Laking was first arrested in 2004, he was held without access to a lawyer for four months. It also alleges that his accusers were allowed to visit him in jail, during the 13-month period in which he was imprisoned; that papers vital for his defense were confiscated and that he was forced to sign over assets. Catherine Wolthuizen, chief executive of Fair Trials Abroad, said: "He has little prospect of having a trial at all let alone a fair trial. It is very disturbing that his ordeal has dragged on for so long with little resolution in sight. There are supposed to be restrictions on the number of times a trial can be postponed in Vietnam." /^\

“At present, Mr Laking is out on bail but his passport has been confiscated and, as a result, he is unable to leave Ho Chi Minh City, where he is living with Vietnamese friends. Although he has no income and has lost all of his assets, friends say he sees his future in Vietnam and cannot imagine living in the UK again. A lawyer for Fair Trials Abroad says that, under the Vietnamese legal code, unless Mr Laking's trial at the Dong Nai Province People's Court in south-eastern Vietnam recommences within the next three months, the charges against him must be dropped. But it remains to be seen whether this will actually prove to be the case. /^\

“A spokesman for Vietnam's Ministry of Foreign Affairs told The Daily Telegraph that Mr Laking's investigation, prosecution and trial have been and continue to be conducted "in full conformity with Vietnamese laws". He explained that Mr Laking was arrested by the Vietnamese authorities in April 2004 and is being prosecuted on suspicion of "abusing trust to appropriate citizen's property under Article 158 of the Penal Code". He insisted that Mr Laking's case was "serious and complicated" and that "the investigation for trial is prolonged in order to ensure justice for the defendants". He added: "Peter Laking and the Embassy of the United Kingdom in Hanoi are frequently provided with information about the case." /^\

Death Penalty in Vietnam

As of 2013 there were nearly 700 people on death row, many for drug offenses. Attempting to move over 600 grams of heroin is punishable by lethal injection of life imprisonment. In 2011, the country switched from firing squads to lethal injection on humanitarian grounds.

According to a media report in Vietnam, "around 100 people are executed by firing squad in Vietnam each year, mostly for drug related offences." In 2007, The country sentenced at least 118 people to death, including 85 for drug crimes.[Source: Amnesty International February 27, 2008]

Death Penalty Worldwide reported: “In January 2004, Vietnam issued a decree classifying death penalty statistics as ‘state secrets." As a result, we were unable to determine the exact convictions for the executions carried out in 2009, 2010 and 2011. The Vietnamese government continues to shroud capital punishment statistics in secrecy, so these facts are difficult to ascertain. The International Federation of Human Rights recently cited a Vietnam Press article from 2006, reporting that 100 people are executed each year, mostly for drug related crimes. [Source: Death Penalty Worldwide +++]

Death penalty figures that reach the public are often based on media reports and court documents. In 2004, Vietnam executed at least 69 people, while the U.S. put to death 65 people. AFP reported that according to information compiled from state media and court officials, at least 69 people were executed and 109 people were sentenced to death in Vietnam in 2003. Vietnam executed some 100 people in 1995, the last year for which complete statistics were available.

In 2004, Associated Press reported: “Vietnam will continue using capital punishment as a deterrent to crime despite criticism from international human rights groups and countries opposed to the death penalty, state-controlled media reported. "For Vietnam, maintaining the death penalty is necessary to ensure the peaceful life for the citizens and for the common interests of the community," Vietnamese Vice Foreign Minister Le Van Bang was quoted by the Thanh Nien (Young People) newspaper as saying.[Source: Associated Press, November 25, 2004]

"In Vietnam the death sentence is carried out for extremely serious crimes and follows tight legal procedures in accordance with Vietnamese laws," Foreign Ministry spokesman, Le Dung, told Reuters. "Recently the death sentences in Vietnam are mainly ruled for offences involving trafficking huge volumes of narcotics. This is an extremely serious crime which is condemned by the society and which needs adequate punishment." [Source: Reuters, September 2, 2003]

People Executed in Vietnam

In 2003, News24.com reported: “A man pretending to be a doctor of traditional medicine was executed in southern Vietnam for fatally poisoning four people and robbing them, court officials said on Saturday. Pham Thanh Tuan, 40, was executed by firing squad on Wednesday in Dong Thap province after his appeal for presidential clemency was rejected last month, a clerk at the provincial People's Court said. He was sentenced to death in June 2002. His death takes the number of people executed in the communist nation this year to at least 29, according to information compiled from state media. [Source: News24.com (.za), November 1, 2003]

See Drugs, Corruption.

Details of the Death Penalty in Vietnam

Vietnam switched from using firing squads to lethal injection to carry out executions in 2011. There was a year and half pause in executions after the European Union banned the export of chemicals used for lethal injections, making them scarce. In August 2013, a 27-year-old convicted murderer became the first person to be executed in Vietnam in 18 month. The execution of the man, Nguyen Anh Tuan, leaves 586 prisoners on death row in Vietnam, 116 of whom have exhausted all avenues of appeal. Vietnam amended a law earlier this year to allow the use of locally produced chemicals. [Source: Nick Cumming-Bruce, New York Times, August 9, 2013]

Courts have handed down a number of death sentences in recent years for drug trafficking, graft and smuggling, which have become rampant despite the tough criminal code. "The use of the death penalty recently had a real impact on suppressing and deterring criminals," Vu Ngoc Anh, vice director of the Ministry of Public Security's Legal Department, told AP. Some 70 to 80 people have been sentenced to death each year in Vietnam since 1999 when Vietnam reduced the number of capital offenses from 44 to 29, said Police Maj. Gen. Le Van Cuong. [Source: Associated Press, November 25, 2004]

Vietnam has carried executions by a five- or seven-man firing squad. Four to six members of the squad fire rifles at the condemned person. The commanding officer fires the final shot—a single bullet to the head—with a pistol. In the 1990s before they were executed condemned prisoners were blindfolded, gagged with a lemon in their mouth, and tied to a post. After they were determined to be dead they were wrapped in traditional bamboo mats and placed in simple coffins. Once a person has been sentenced to death he has seven days to appeal for a presidential pardon, which is rarely given. In some cases, criminals are told they will be spared if they confess but are executed anyway. Some people are given the death penalty plus a fine. One gangster was executed and fined $150,000.

In January 1998, three former businessmen convicted of corruption were publicly executed in front of thousands of people in outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City. They were awakened from their cells at dawn at Saigon's Chi Hoa Prison, offered a cigarettes and a last meal of chicken, steamed buns and a soft drink, and allowed to write a final note.

Crimes and Offenders Punishable By Death

Crimes and Offenders Punishable By Death: 1) Aggravated Murder: Murder of more than one victim, murder of family members or public officials, and murder committed in a particularly cruel way are all punishable by death. 2) Terrorism-Related Offenses: Those who intend to oppose the people’s administration and infringe upon the life of officials, public employees or citizens are punishable by death. 3) Rape of Child: Aggravated rape of a child aged 13 to 15 or statutory rape of a child under the age of 13 are punishable by death. (Aggravated rape of adults used to be punishable by death before the 2009 amendment to the penal code.) 4) Robbery: Aggravated robbery is punishable by death. [Source: Death Penalty Worldwide +++]

5) Drug Trafficking: Illegally producing drugs over a specified amount, such as heroin or cocaine weighing one hundred grams or more, is punishable by death. Stockpiling, transporting, or trading drugs over a specified amount are also punishable by death. However, under the 2009 amendment to the penal code, organizing the illegal use of drugs is no longer a death-eligible offense. +++

6) Economic Crimes Not Resulting in Death: Capital punishment may be applied for: A) embezzlement if the appropriated property is valued at five hundred million dong or more, or if the crime caused other particularly serious consequences. B) Accepting bribes is punishable by death (offering bribes also used to be death eligible). C) Manufacturing and/or trading in fake goods (such as food, foodstuffs, curative medicines and preventive medicines) is punishable by death if the act results in serious consequences. Illegal cross-border trading of objects of great value and in great quantities used to be punishable by death, but the 2009 amendment to the penal code removed it from the list of death-eligible crimes. +++

7) Treason: A) Acting in collusion with a foreign country to harm the regime or the State; B) conducting armed activities with a view to opposing the government; C) organizing banditry activities; D) sabotaging the material and technical foundations of the country; E) and destroying important national security facilities are all punishable by death. Organizers who carry out activities aimed at "overthrowing the people’s administration" are subject to death penalty. This provision is problematic in that it does not make a distinction between acts of terrorism and peaceful dissent, so anyone who has the mere intent to criticize the government could be subjected to the death penalty. +++

8) Espionage, which covers non-political acts such as "gathering or supplying information and other materials for use by foreign countries against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam," is punishable by death. On its face, this language is broad enough to potentially apply the death penalty to dissidents who simply circulate their views overseas. 9) Military Offenses: Disobeying orders of direct commanding army personnel or surrendering to the enemy with particularly serious consequences are punishable by death. Other Offenses Not Resulting in Death: Serious violations of humanitarian law, including crimes against mankind, undermining peace and war crimes, are punishable by death. +++

Vietnam Cuts Crimes Punishable by Death

Vietnam reduced the number of offenses that carry the death penalty to 21 in 2009 but still allows execution for crimes like armed robbery and embezzlement. According to Death Penalty Worldwide: The Vietnam Penal Code was amended in 2009 to reduce the number of crimes punishable by the death penalty. In the original 1999 Penal Code, aggravated rape of an adult, appropriating property through swindling, smuggling, counterfeiting money or bonds, organizing the illegal use of narcotics, hijacking, offering bribes and destroying military weapons were all punishable by death. The death penalty is not mandatory in Vietnam. All death-eligible crimes have explicitly stated alternative penalties. Additionally, the penal code provides that courts shall take into account all aggravating and extenuating circumstances in sentencing, thus granting them the discretion to deliver sentences that are less severe than statutory alternatives. [Source: Death Penalty Worldwide +++]

That wasn’t the first time the number of crimes punishable by death was reduced. In January 2000, Reuters reported: “Vietnam's amended Penal Code cuts by a third the number of crimes that carry the death penalty. Pham Van Hung, a senior official from Vietnam's National Assembly, said that the Penal Code amendments listed 29 crimes punishable by death, versus 44 previously. Hung said crimes no longer punishable by execution included illegally trading currencies, deserting the battlefield and destroying state property. [Source: Reuters, January 21, 2000]

Capital punishment covered a broad range of crimes, from trying to topple the government, to espionage and engaging in acts that cause social unrest. Hung gave no clear details, but it appeared large-scale graft and smuggling were still covered by the death penalty.

Categories of Offenders Excluded From the Death Penalty

Categories of offenders excluded from the death penalty: 1) Individuals Below Age 18 At Time of Crime: The most severe available punishment for juveniles is eighteen years of imprisonment. 2) Pregnant Women. 3) Women With Small Children: Women nursing children under the age of three are excluded from the death penalty. In these cases, the death penalty is commuted into life imprisonment. [Source: Death Penalty Worldwide +++]

4) Mentally Retarded: We did not find any legislation that specifically excludes individuals with intellectual disabilities from the death penalty. A person who is suffering from mental disease or disease which deprives him of his capability to be aware of or to control his acts is not criminally liable. The Penal Code addresses mental illness that restricts the offender’s cognitive capability as an extenuating circumstance to the death penalty, and this could be applied to prohibit the execution of individuals with mental retardation. +++

5) Mentally Ill: A person who is suffering from mental disease or disease which deprives him of his capability to be aware of or to control his acts is not criminally liable. The Penal Code addresses mental illness that restricts the offender’s cognitive capability as an extenuating circumstance to the death penalty. +++

Women Sentenced to Death in Vietnam

In December 2003, a Vietnamese woman—La Thi Kim Oanh— was sentenced to death for embezzlement. She was director of a company run by the Agriculture Ministry. See Vietnamese Woman Sentenced to Death for Embezzlement

In September 2005, Associated Press reported: “Two women in northern Vietnam have been sentenced to death for heroin dealing, a court official said. Nguyen Thi Chuc and Le Thi Thanh were convicted of illegally trading 1.83 kilograms and 0.82 kilograms of heroin respectively from late 2003 until they were arrested in May 2004, said presiding judge Ta Gia Luong. The two-day trial ended Tuesday. The court also sentenced three others to life imprisonment, and seven others received sentences ranging from two years to 20 years on the same charges, he said. Nine of the 12 convicted were women. Possessing, trading or trafficking more than 600 grams (1.3 pounds) of heroin or 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of opium are punishable by death or life in prison. [Source: Associated Press, September 21, 2005]

In 2004, Associated Press reported; “Vietnam executed a woman convicted of circulating counterfeit Vietnamese currency, an official said. Tran Thi My Ha, 31, stood before a firing squad early Tuesday in central Quang Nam province, some 850 kilometers (530 miles) south of Hanoi, said Pham Van Xu, a provincial People's Court official. Ha was convicted of circulating 1.45 billion dong (US$92,350) in fake currency between 2000 until she was arrested in May 2002, Xu said. Her plea for clemency was rejected by President Tran Duc Luong in October, he said. [Source: The Associated Press, November 17, 2004]

Vietnam Considers Using an Execution Machine But Settles for Lethal Injection

In 2004, Reuters reported: “Vietnam's government has asked the police to consider abandoning firing squads in favor of a mechanised gun to execute criminals because shaky individuals can miss their target. "Execution should be changed to automatic shooting, which has high accuracy," Bui Duc Long, head of the Supreme Prosecution Institute's execution inspection department, was quoted by the Ho Chi Minh City Law newspaper on Wednesday as saying. "The executioner will have to just push a button," Long, who is advising the Police Ministry on changes in capital punishment, told the newspaper in an interview. [Source: Reuters, October 20, 2004]

Long did not describe the favored machine, but said opinion was moving away from switching to lethal injection as too painful for the condemned. Vietnam has maintained execution by a seven-man firing squad despite criticism by some human rights groups. Six members of the squad fire rifles while the captain fires a final shot to the head from a handgun. The newspaper cited a police study as showing only 30 percent of police firing squads were volunteers, most of them were young and 7 percent of them tremble enough to miss the target.

Vietnam switched from using firing squads to lethal injection to carry out executions in July, 2011. In 2012, Reuters reported: “Hundreds of death-row prisoners in Vietnam have been given a reprieve of sorts due to a shortage of the drug used for lethal injections, a newspaper said. Death by firing squad was replaced by lethal injections to reduce suffering last July — but police have failed to execute anyone since. "In the past year, the execution of more than 400 inmates has not been able to go ahead. More than 100 of them have completed all the paperwork," Deputy Police Minister Dang Van Hieu was quoted by Tuesday's Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper as saying. "Their execution awaits the drug, which is not available yet." He said imports of the unspecified drug "had proved difficult". The newspaper did not give any suggestion of how the problem could be solved. The American state of Oklahoma, which executes more prisoners per capita than any other state, said this month it had only one remaining dose of European-made pentobarbital, a key drug used to kill condemned prisoners.One reason the state had run so low in stocks was because of a ban on the sale of drugs for such purposes by the European Union, which opposes the death penalty. [Source: Reuters, May 28, 2012]

In November 2013, Associated Press reported: “Vietnam is considering the resumption of execution by firing squad because of problems getting chemicals for lethal injections, according to state media. The Laborer newspaper quoted the minister of public security, Tran Dai Quang, asking the national assembly to allow the use of firing squads until the end of 2015, along with execution by lethal injection. In 2011, the country decided to switch from firing squads to lethal injection on humanitarian grounds, but only seven prisoners have been executed since August after a long delay as it struggled to obtain needed chemicals. Several lawmakers were quoted as saying the move would relieve pressure on prisons. There are 678 people on death row in Vietnam, it said. [Source: Associated Press, November 8, 2013]


The Ministry of Public Security controls the police, a national security investigative agency, and other units that maintain internal security. Some are armed with electric batons. Weapons and explosives are carefully controlled in Vietnam.

According to the U.S. Department of State: Internal security is the responsibility of the Ministry of Public Security, although in some remote areas, the military is the primary government agency and performs public safety functions, including maintaining public order in the event of civil unrest. The ministry controls the police, a special national security investigative agency, and other internal security units. It also maintains a system of household registration and block wardens to monitor the population. While this system was less intrusive than in the past, it continued to monitor individuals suspected of engaging, or being likely to engage, in unauthorized political activities. Credible reports suggested that local police used “contract thugs” and “citizen brigades” to harass and beat political activists and others, including religious worshippers, perceived as undesirable or a threat to public security. [Source: 2011 Human Rights Reports: Vietnam, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor,U.S. Department of State; 2011 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices Report, May 24, 2012 ***]

Police organizations exist at the provincial, district, and local levels and are subject to the authority of people’s committees at each level. At the commune level, it is common for guard forces composed of residents to assist the police. The police were generally effective at maintaining public order, but police capabilities, especially investigative, were generally very limited, and training and resources were inadequate. Several foreign governments assisted in training provincial police and prison management officials to improve their professionalism. ***

Anti-Crime Efforts in Vietnam

In February 1996, the government launched a campaign against "social evils" such as prostitution, drugs and pornography. The effort also included a campaign against foreign influences which manifested itself in the tearing down of foreign-language signs, billboards and corporate logos. In one round up, 155 suspected gangsters were arrested and charged with crimes such as gambling, illegal immigration, smuggling, bribery and murder.

When I visited Vietnam in 1996 I spent about three hours in a police station office after being flagged down at a checkpoint while riding a bicycle near Ho Chi Minh City Airport. The police took my passport. I sat in an office for an hour or so until, it seemed, a higher level officer than what was present could be mustered up. When this officer appeared he apparently was not satisfied and I waited again until, it seemed, an even higher level officer could be found. This officer looked at my passport and gave it back to me and let me go. During the whole episode no words were exchanged.

In 2003, the BBC reported: "Police in Hanoi are now armed with a non-lethal but potentially extremely effective weapon — a paintballing gun. The idea is to use the guns' red, yellow and green dyes to mark thieves and racers as they speed away on their motorbikes and disappear into a crowd. The guns have a range of 10 meters (33 feet). Street racing on the streets of Hanoi is becoming an increasing problem. The government says traffic is the main cause of preventable death in Vietnam. The new paintballing guns may help to reduce speeding and therefore accidents, but it may not be without its own hazards. Analysts say police may miss their targets and accidentally brand the wrong person. And the high velocity of the ink ammunition can make paintballing a painful experience. [Source: BBC News, November 11, 2003]

See Combating Corruption

Problems with the Police and Detainment Policy in Vietnam

According to Human Rights Watch: “Police brutality, including torture and fatal beatings, continues to be reported in all regions of the country. At least 13 people died in police custody within the first 10 months of 2011. Political and religious detainees and others whose cases are considered sensitive are frequently tortured during interrogation, held incommunicado prior to trial, and denied family visits and access to lawyers. [Source: Human Rights Watch World Report 2012 ^^^]

Vietnamese law continues to authorize arbitrary "administrative detention" without trial. Under Ordinance 44 (2002) and Decree 76 (2003), peaceful dissidents and others deemed threats to national security or public order can be involuntarily committed to mental institutions, placed under house arrest, or detained in state-run "rehabilitation" or "re-education" centers. ^^^

People dependent on illegal drugs can be held in government detention centers where they are subjected to "labor therapy," the mainstay of Vietnam’s approach to drug treatment. In early 2011 there were 123 centers across the country holding some 40,000 people, including children as young as 12. Their detention is not subject to any form of due process or judicial oversight and routinely lasts for as long as four years. Infringement of center rules—including the work requirement—is punished by beatings with truncheons, shocks with electrical batons, and being locked in disciplinary rooms where detainees are deprived of food and water. Former detainees report being forced to work in cashew processing and other forms of agricultural production, including potato or coffee farming; construction work; and garment manufacturing and other forms of manufacturing, such as making bamboo and rattan products. Under Vietnamese law, companies who source products from these centers are eligible for tax exemptions. Some products produced as a result of this forced labor made their way into the supply chain of companies who sell goods abroad, including to the United States and Europe. ^^^

See Drugs

Detainment Policies and Arbitrary Arrest in Vietnam

According to the U.S. Department of State: The law outlines the process by which individuals are taken into custody and treated until authorities adjudicate their cases. The Supreme People’s Procuracy (Public Prosecutor’s Office) issues arrest warrants, generally at the request of police. However, police may make an arrest without a warrant based on a complaint filed by any person. The procuracy issues retroactive warrants in such cases. The procuracy must issue a decision to initiate a formal criminal investigation of a detainee within nine days; otherwise, police must release the suspect. In practice the nine-day regulation was often circumvented. [Source: 2011 Human Rights Reports: Vietnam, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor,U.S. Department of State; 2011 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices Report, May 24, 2012 ***]

Arbitrary arrest and detention, particularly for political activists, remained a problem. According to activist groups and diplomatic sources, the government sentenced at least 29 arrested activists during the year to a total of 165 years in jail and 70 years of probation for exercising their rights. Authorities also increasingly charged political dissidents with “attempting to overthrow the state” due to their alleged membership in political parties other than the CPV. While violators of this legal provision had the possibility of receiving the death penalty, they typically received prison sentences of up to seven years. The government also used decrees, ordinances, and other measures to detain activists for the peaceful expression of opposing political views. ***

For example, in February police in Ho Chi Minh City detained Nguyen Dan Que for allegedly urging individuals to take part in mass protests demanding political reforms but released him after three days of questioning. Local police continued to monitor him closely throughout the year. In April police detained political dissidents Pham Hong Son and Le Quoc Quan for “causing public disorder” in an attempt to attend the open trial of fellow political activist Cu Huy Ha Vu but released them nine days later. ***

Forced entry into homes is not permitted without orders from the public prosecutor, although security forces seldom followed these procedures and instead asked permission to enter homes with an implied threat of repercussions for failure to cooperate. During the year police forcibly entered homes of a number of prominent dissidents--such as Pham Hong Son, Nguyen Thanh Giang, Le Quoc Quan, and Le Tran Luat--and removed personal computers, cell phones, and other material. Government authorities continued to open and censor targeted persons’ mail; confiscate packages and letters; and monitor telephone conversations, e-mail, text messages, and fax transmissions. The government cut the telephone lines and interrupted the cell phone and Internet service of a number of political activists and their family members. ***

Deaths in Police Custody in Vietnam

According to the U.S. Department of State: In 2011 there were reports of 19 deaths of persons in custody during the year as well as abuses of lethal force. For example, in March Trinh Xuan Tung died in custody in Hanoi after Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Van Ninh beat him while in detention for a traffic violation. Authorities suspended Ninh pending investigation, and at year’s end the scheduling of a trial was expected in early 2012. [Source: 2011 Human Rights Reports: Vietnam, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor,U.S. Department of State; 2011 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices Report, May 24, 2012 ***]

In April in Dong Nai Province, local police officers beat Nguyen Cong Nhut to death after detaining him for five days for allegedly stealing tires. The case was reported to the Supreme People’s Court and at year’s end remained under investigation. In March a court convicted police officer Nguyen The Nghiep of excessive use of force and sentenced him to seven years in prison for the death by beating of Nguyen Van Khuong, who was arrested for a traffic violation in Bac Giang Province in July 2010. Authorities also banned Nghiep for life from the police force and ordered him to pay 155 million Vietnamese dong (VND) (approximately $7,380) to the deceased’s family, which his family did. ***

In September authorities charged four former prison guards (Hoang Dinh Nam, Nguyen Van Tho, Le Huu Thiet, and Tran Van Phuc) in the Central Highlands with using plastic batons to beat to death inmate Truong Thanh Tuan in September 2010. A court directed the four to pay VND 129 million (approximately $6,140) to the victim’s family. ***

Physical Abuse and Torture by Police in Vietnam

According to the U.S. Department of State: The law prohibits physical abuse, but police commonly mistreated suspects during arrest or detention. Incidents of physical harassment, intimidation, and the questioning of family members were reported in several locations, including but not limited to Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Bac Giang and Dong Nai provinces. [Source: 2011 Human Rights Reports: Vietnam, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor,U.S. Department of State; 2011 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices Report, May 24, 2012 ***]

For example, in April local police arrested and beat Tran Van Du from Soc Trang Province while interrogating him in custody. In October the Soc Trang People’s Court sentenced the following police officers for “intentionally inflicting injury”: Vo Van Ut Deo to two years’ imprisonment; Danh Nhan, eight years; Tran Tuan Khai, four years; and Nguyen Quoc Thang, two years. In August Hanoi police officials opened an investigation into an alleged “deliberate physical assault” by police Captain Minh after Internet footage showed him stomping on a detained protester during a demonstration over Chinese sovereignty claims in the South China Sea (East Sea) in July. Authorities placed Minh on administrative leave but later cleared and reinstated him. ***

Vietnamese Police, Fake Degrees and Organized Crime

Associated Press reported: "More than 1,700 policemen in Vietnam have been caught using fake degrees and certificates to get promotions and raises, state-controlled media reported. A total of 1,076 got demoted and another 97 were dismissed from the police force for falsifying their education and training, the Pioneer newspaper said. [Source: Associated Press, December 23, 2004 ////]

"The newspaper quoted vice minister of public security Lt. Gen. Le The Tiem defending the men, saying police can make mistakes. "Police are human beings. If that is the case, there are cheaters," he said "The violation rate is very small (compared) with the size of the police force." Tiem said the nation's police is in the process of modernizing, and as part of that, it requires that most of its staff have a degree. Some in the police force did not get an official education and they had to go to part-time classes and other training in order to get salary raises, he said. In recent years, thousands of government civil servants have been caught falsifying their educational degrees. ////

In 2002, Associated Press reported: "Vietnam has fired four more police officers, including a local police chief, for alleged links to an underworld gang, bringing the number of police dismissed in the huge corruption case to nearly 30, state-controlled media reported. The local police chief in Ho Chi Minh City, two deputies and another officer were fired for allegedly receiving at least 200,000 dong ($13) a week to protect the gang's gambling operations, the Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper said. Scores of other police officers in Ho Chi Minh City have been disciplined or suspended for reportedly receiving payoffs to protect the gang's operations, including gambling, restaurants, karaoke bars and hotels. State-controlled media say 149 people — including 12 police officers, three prosecutors and two journalists — will be brought to trial for alleged links to the gang. [Source: Associated Press, September 6, 2002]

Vietnamese Policeman Machine-Guns Party Cadre

In 2003, AFP reported: "An ex-deputy police chief in southern Vietnam who shot a Communist Party cadre with a machine gun during a meeting to punish him for being disorganized has been executed, officials said. Nguyen Van Hong, former deputy police chief of Cam Giang, Tay Ninh Province, was sentenced to death last February after being convicted of killing Nguyen Duy Nghia. He was executed in Tay Ninh Province, a judicial source told AFP. [Source: Agence France Presse, December 30, 2003]

In August 2002, Hong had stormed into the police station where the Communist Party cadre had been called to a meeting to discuss punishing him for being disorganized. He opened fired with a submachine gun and Nghia was killed instantly. Another policeman was badly injured, taking a bullet in the midriff. Hong then turned the gun on himself but the shot missed his heart and he survived.

Prisoners in Vietnam

According to the U.S. Department of State: Prison conditions were austere but generally not life threatening. Overcrowding, insufficient diet, lack of access to potable water, and poor sanitation remained serious problems. Prisoners generally were required to work but received no wages. Authorities sometimes placed prisoners in solitary confinement, thus depriving them of reading and writing materials for periods of up to several months. Family members continued to make credible claims that prisoners received benefits by paying bribes to prison officials or undertaking hunger strikes. [Source: 2011 Human Rights Reports: Vietnam, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor,U.S. Department of State; 2011 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices Report, May 24, 2012 ***]

Prisoners had access to basic health care, although in many cases officials prevented family members from providing medication to prisoners. Family members of imprisoned activists who experienced health problems claimed medical treatment was inadequate and resulted in greater long-term health complications. In July and September, respectively, two long-term prisoners convicted and jailed for attempting to overthrow the government (Nguyen Van Trai, a member of the People’s Action Party of Vietnam, and Truong Van Suong) died in prison from liver cancer and heart disease, respectively. ***

The total number of prisoners and detainees was not publicly available. Pretrial detainees were held separately from convicted prisoners. Juveniles generally were held in prison separately from adults, but on rare occasions, they were held in detention with adults for short periods due to the unavailability of space. Men and women were held separately but treated equally. Political prisoners were typically sent to specially designated prisons that also held other regular criminals, and in most cases, political prisoners were kept separate from nonpolitical prisoners. Authorities completely isolated some high-profile political prisoners from all others. While prison sentences could be extremely lengthy, prisoners were not forced to serve beyond the maximum sentence for their charged offense. ***

Authorities limited prisoners to one 30-minute family visit per month and generally permitted family members to give supplemental food and bedding to prisoners. Prisoners did not have the right to practice their religion in public, nor to have access to religious books and scriptures, although authorities allowed Roman Catholic priest and democracy activist Thaddeus Nguyen Van Ly (rearrested in July) to keep a Bible, pray, and give communion. Prisoners were allowed to submit complaints to prison management and judicial authorities, but their complaints were routinely ignored. ***

Amnesty International said it was is concerned by the conditions of detainees in many prisons and prison camps and particularly in police stations throughout Viet Nam. The prolonged use of solitary confinement in some detention facilities has been reported. The organization has received reports of some political prisoners being held in very small cells with no proper sanitary facilities or of prisoners being held in very overcrowded rooms. Prisoners held in "re-education" or prison camps often have to carry out daily manual labor with only severe ill health excusing prisoners from this work. The allowance of family visits in some cases appears to be arbitrary and health care and diet is frequently far from adequate. [Source: Amnesty International, December 18, 2002 *]

In Vietnam, convicts serving suspended sentences are effectively placed under house arrest, with severe restrictions on their movements and a requirement to check in regularly with police.

Prisoner Amnesties in Vietnam

Thousands of prisoners are often released around the Tet (the lunar new year) in February, National day in September and other important national holidays under presidential amnesties Prisoners who committed serious crimes are usually not eligible. In August 2005 to mark Vietnam’s 60th national day 10,428 prisoners received pardons from President Tran Duc Luong. More than 22,000 prisoners were freed in two presidential amnesties in 2000.

In 2005 Reuters reported: “Vietnam plans to grant amnesty to 8,277 prisoners to mark the country's traditional Lunar New Year Festival. The communist country's President Tran Duc Luong will soon make a final decision on a proposal by the National Amnesty Consulting Council, the daily Tien Phong newspaper said. Only those with "good re-education records" will be given amnesty, the paper added. Last September, Vietnam granted a nationwide amnesty to 8,623 prisoners, including 51 foreigners, to mark its September 2 National Day. Included in the list were 10 prisoners described by Hanoi as "of concern to the international community". Western governments and human rights groups have long criticised Hanoi for jailing political and religious critics of the regime. Further amnesties are expected to be announced on May 19, the anniversary of the birth of revered Vietnamese Communist Party founder and independence hero Ho Chi Minh. [Source: Agence France Presse, January 13, 2005]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

Last updated May 2014

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