Report on the case of death-row prisoner Nguyen Van Chuong

A group of legal activists on Monday (March 16) made a full report on the case of Nguyen Van Chuong, the 32-year-old death-row prisoner who is now awaiting execution even though his case, with many blatant violations of due process and international human rights principles, is arousing public concern and anger toward the police-dominant judiciary system in Vietnam.

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Case summary

1. Accusations made by the police

The investigative report by the Hai Phong’s Investigative Police Office alleged that:

At 9pm, July 14, 2007, Nguyen Van Chuong (b. 1983), Do Van Hoang (1985) and Vu Toan Trung (1984) were travelling altogether on a motorbike (triple-riding) when they saw Nguyen Van Sinh, a police major of Dong Hai II ward, Hai An, Hai Phong, who was riding a motorbike on his way to work. The three, in their need to procure some money to buy heroin, decided to rob anyone they saw, so they attacked Mr. Sinh with their sword and knife. Trung and Chuong stabbed Mr. Sinh in his back and some other parts of his body. Mr. Sinh, equipped with a gun, fought back by shooting them. They then ran away on their motorbike, leaving Mr. Sinh badly wounded and dead afterwards. Hoang and Chuong threw away the knives they used to kill Mr. Sinh, while Trung’s sword was confiscated later by the police. The police also collected from the murder scene a gauze mask, a pair of slippers, a sword, and some of Mr. Sinh’s objects, including his gun, cell phone, raincoat, uniform and some blood samples.

On August 4, 2007, Nguyen Trong Doan, Chuong’s younger brother, met Trinh Xuan Truong (b. 1986), Tran Quang Tuat (b. 1982), Luc Thi Nhieu (b. 1970), and Vu Thi Men (b. 1987) in Hai Phong to guide them to confirm in writing that Chuong was staying in Hai Duong, not Hai Phong, on the night of the murder.

The police’s investigative report alleged that Doan had instructed those people to establish false alibi to conceal his elder brother’s crime.

2. Innocence claims by the accused

All the three accused Nguyen Van Chuong, Do Van Hoang, and Vu Toan Trung claimed innocence in both first-instance and appellate trial.

The brothers Chuong and Doan said before court that they were tortured during interrogation until they admitted guilt. In some of his testimonials, Chuong managed to write “EC” [acronym for “ep cung” or extortion in Vietnamese]. He also claimed that some of the documents on the case were lost, including a written confirmation by the Tran Phu detention center that he had been seriously beaten and badly wounded before he was taken there.

Chuong and his defending lawyer requested the police to restore his call logs to verify whether he was staying in Hai Phong on the night of the murder, but their request was rejected. They also said before court that the police did not identify whose gauze mask, slippers, and sword were left at the murder scene, and the victim’s underwear, though deemed to be exhibits of the crime, were destroyed for some unknown reason.

One of Chuong’s lawyers, attorney Hoang Van Quanh, told the press, “My defence for Chuong is 23 pages long, and it raised 23 issues for the courts and the procuracy to consider, but it was rejected.”

The defending lawyers said they were obstructed by the Hai Phong police who delayed granting them defense counsel’s certificates. It took them more than six months to be granted permission to meet Chuong for the first time. They were often denied access to the accused during the course of their duty, so that they had to send petitions to the Ministry of Public Security, the Supreme People’s Procuracy, and the Deputy Prime Minister.

Nguyen Trong Doan, Chuong’s younger brother, who has completed his two-year prison term, said he was arrested for “concealing offenses” while he just visited the police station to submit confirmations by the witnesses. Following his arrest, all the witnesses changed their previous testimonials, saying they did meet Chuong in Hai Duong but they were not sure whether it was on the night of the murder.

However, two male witnesses, Tran Quang Tuat and Trinh Xuan Truong, admitted later that they had to change their testimonials after some excruciating torture by the police. They said the fact was that they were with Chuong in Hai Duong on the night of the murder, which established an alibi for Chuong.

Violations of due process principle and international human rights standards

3.1. Pre-trial detention

As a detainee, during interrogation, Nguyen Van Chuong was compelled to testify against himself and to confess guilt. Evidence, though obtained as a result of torture, was still accepted. His lawyers were obstructed in the course of their duty.

Nguyen Trong Doan, Chuong’s younger brother, was urgently arrested when he visited the police station to submit petition for the release of Nguyen Van Chuong.

There are signs that the rights of the accused were not guarantee in pre-trial detention. The violated rights include, but may not be limited just to, the following ones:
– right to personal liberty and prohibition of arbitrary detention;
– right to legal assistance before trial;
– rights during the investigation, including presumption of innocence;
– rights to humane treatment and not to be tortured while in detention.

3.2. Trial proceedings

There are signs that the rights of the accused were not guarantee in trial proceedings. The violated rights include, but may not be limited just to, the following ones:
– right to a fair trial, including right to benefit from the principle of adversarial proceedings and the principle of due process;
– right to benefit from presumption of innocence;
– right to equality of arms;
– right to call and examine witnesses;
– right not to be compelled to confess guilt or to testify against oneself;
– exclusion of evidence elicited by illegal means, including torture or ill-treatment.

The above-mentioned rights in pre-trial detention and trial proceedings are guaranteed by international human rights standards, including General Comments by the UN Human Rights Committee, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), to which Vietnam is a signatory.

Violations of Vietnamese laws

Article 3 of the 2004 Ordinance on conducting criminal investigation stipulates that “investigative activities must… make clear evidence of crime and evidence of innocence.”

Circular 28/2014 issued by the Ministry of Public Security identifies one primary principle of investigative activities as “to find and make clear evidence of crime and evidence of innocence.”
Article 10 of the Vietnamese Criminal Procedure Code stipulates that “investigating bodies, procuracies and courts must apply every lawful measure to determine the facts of criminal cases in an objective, versatile and full manner, to make clear evidence of crime and evidence of innocence, circumstances aggravating and extenuating the criminal liabilities of the accused or defendants. The responsibility to prove offenses shall rest with the procedure-conducting bodies. The accused or defendants shall have the right but not be bound to prove their innocence.”
In Nguyen Van Chuong’s case, the Hai Phong investigative police, however, failed to comply with these laws.

According to Article 65 of the Vietnamese Criminal Procedure Code, “participants in the procedure, agencies, organizations or any individuals may all present documents, as well as matters related to the cases.” Article 66 provides that “investigators, procurators, judges and jurors shall identify and evaluate all evidences with a full sense of responsibility after studying generally, objectively, comprehensively and fully all circumstances of the cases.”

But Chuong and his lawyer’ requests regarding evidence examination were rejected.

Opinions of the participants

Chief Justice Truong Hoa Binh, member of the Communist Party, said in a meeting of the Standing Committee of the National Assembly that the Chairman of the Supreme People’s Procuracy had requested to commute death sentence to life imprisonment, but the request was rejected by the trial panel because “Chuong masterminded the murder.”

“Chuong did not kill the victim himself but another subject did that. However, when the consequence arose, the one who masterminded the attempt must be held liable. I confirm this is not a wrongful conviction, definitely not. However, if the National Assembly has any query, we will keep considering this case carefully.”

Opinion of the authors

As final decision by the Judges’ Council of the Supreme Court was made, under current Vietnamese law, there is no way to reverse the death sentence against Nguyen Van Chuong, even if he may be wrongly convicted.

The death sentence may be commuted to life imprisonment if the State President grants amnesty to the convict. But Nguyen Van Chuong and his family declined to make petition for commutation, insisting that he is innocent and should be acquitted.

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