Report on the case of death-row prisoner Ho Duy Hai

A full report on the case of Ho Duy Hai, 30, a 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.

Related article: Report on the Case of Death-row Prisoner Nguyen Van Chuong

Case summary

  1. Accusations made by the police

The investigative report by the Long An’s Investigative Police Office alleged that:

Ho Duy Hai prior to the case.

Ho Duy Hai prior to the case.

At around 7.30pm on January 13, 2008, Ho Duy Hai went to the Cau Voi Post Office to visit two female friends, Nguyen Thi Anh Hong (b. 1985) and Nguyen Thi Thu Van (b. 1987). They talked until 8.30pm when the Post Office closed and Ho Duy Hai asked Van to go to the market for buying some fruits. After Van left, Ho Duy Hai tried to rape Hong but she resisted, so Ho Duy Hai choked and hit Hong on her head with a chopping board, then cut her neck with a knife made of inox steel until she got dead. When Van came back, Ho Duy Hai killed her the same way. He went home after stealing some money, phone cards and jewelries of the two victims. A few days later, Ho Duy Hai sold the jewelries to a goldsmith shop in Ho Chi Minh City and threw away the phone cards stolen.

This description of the murder was based on Ho Duy Hai’s testimonials to the investigative police.

The police failed to find the chopping board and the stainless knife allegedly used by Ho Duy Hai to kill Nguyen Thi Anh Hong and Nguyen Thi Thu Van. Those who tidied up the crime scene said they found a clean knife, but they got it burnt and dumped it away, and some garbage collector may have taken it.

However, the police insisted that Ho Duy Hai, in his testimonials, had elaborated the murder and admitted guilt, and that Ho Duy Hai’s testimonials matched the happenings; for example, his description of the stolen jewelries and the places he visited following the murder was accurate.

  1. Irregularities in the case

On March 21, 2008, the investigative police office arrested and charged Ho Duy Hai for “murdering”. On that same day, Mr. Nguyen Van Thu, one of the witnesses who cleaned up the crime scene, went to the local market to buy a knife and submitted it to the police, saying “it looks like the knife lost from the crime scene”. He also made a confirmation in writing that he handed the newly bought knife to the police.

On April 11, 2008, the Long An Police’s Department for Technical Criminal Investigation issued their expertise conclusions, stating that “the fingerprints collected at the scene of the Cau Voi murder on January 14, 2008… are not found to match Ho Duy Hai’s fingerprints.”

Description of the knife that simulated the weapon as described by the witness.

Description of the knife that simulated the weapon described by the witness.

On June 24, 2008, under police’s request, Mrs. Le Thi Thu Hieu, a mutual friend of the two victims, went to the market to buy a chopping board for the police to simulate the weapon.

Both the newly bought knife and chopping board would later be considered by the Long An People’s Procuracy as the weapons that Ho Duy Hai used for murdering.

  1. Innocence claims by the accused

During trial proceedings, Ho Duy Hai kept appealing against judgments and decisions of the court. He has kept claiming innocence for the past seven years.

Also, Ho Duy Hai more than once asked his mother, Mrs. Nguyen Thi Loan, to petition for him to be transferred to a prison outside Long An province, which poses a suspicion that he has been maltreated there. In such a prison visit, when Mrs. Loan asked her son why he wanted to move to a different prison, the Long An prison wardens – with at least ten people always standing behind Ho Duy Hai – interrupted and diverted their conversation to a different matter. Ho Duy Hai seemed to have avoided the word “torture”; instead, he repeatedly said “it hurts,” or “my body feels a lot of pain.”

At the first trial in the province, Mr. Vo Thanh Quyet, one of Ho Duy Hai’s defending lawyers, saying privately to the main attorney, “Please do all the arguing. It’s hard for me to defend Ho Duy Hai because I live here; all the State officials in Long An know me.” Even before the trial took place, lawyer Quyet told Ho Duy Hai’s family it would only be possible to ask the Court for a light sentence, not to claim innocence.

Tran Ngoc Lam, a senior officer of the Supreme People’s Procuracy in Ho Chi Minh City, added to the mystery when, after the appeal court, he said to one of Ho Duy Hai’s aunts, “I’m sorry I had to uphold the death sentence for Ho Duy Hai. I’ve been under pressure. Please don’t blame me. Just blame the people who urged me to do so.” Mr. Lam grew up in Long An province, where he had established himself a high-profile state official before moving to Ho Chi Minh City. He died in 2013 due to a stroke, making it impossible for the private conversation about Ho Duy Hai to be verified or made an official court detail.

Violations of due process principle and international human rights standards

3.1. Pre-trial detention

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:

  • 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.

Due process violations

  • The case has no witness who actually saw Ho Duy Hai at the crime scene.
  • The fingerprints collected did not match that of Ho Duy Hai (and the police did not identify whose fingerprints they were).
  • The indictment was mostly based on Ho Duy Hai’s testimonials and fake evidence, including the knife and chopping board purchased at the local market as simulation of the weapons.

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 despite some minor wrongdoings, the nature of the case remained unchanged.

“At the first-instance trial, the accused admitted guilt and said he had not suffer from torture or extortion. The trial court then decided that Ho Duy Hai is guilty. In the appellate trial, the accused said he did not commit the crime, but what he said was not made clear yet, so it did not change the nature of the case and he was convicted.”

“On investigating the case, the Court has not found any basis for protest, although there were some shortcomings during the police’s process of collecting evidence.”

Ho Duy Hai's mother and aunt desperately fighting to save his life. Photo by Lan Thang.

Ho Duy Hai’s mother and aunt desperately fighting to save his life. Photo by Lan Thang.

Opinion of the authors

According to the Vietnam Criminal Procedures Code, the appellate judgment of Ho Duy Hai can be protested against by the President of the Supreme People’s Court and the Chairman of the Supreme People’s Procuracy under cassation procedures.

Once the judgment is protested and the protest is approved, the Judges’ Council of the Supreme People’s Court shall review the case and issue one of these three decisions:

  • to reject the protests and retain the legally valid judgments or decisions.
  • to dismiss the legally valid judgments or decisions and cease the cases.
  • to dismiss the legally valid judgments or decisions for re-investigation or re-trial.

The Judges’ Council of the Supreme People’s Court’s decisions are final judgments and cannot be protested.