‘Very easy’ to die in prisons here
Do Thi Mai said she was shocked to learn that her 17-year-old son, Do Dang Du, had fallen into a coma in prison a few weeks after he was arrested, accused by police of stealing about $90.
Police initially said that Du’s severe head and leg wounds had been caused by falls in the bathroom, according to a family lawyer. “He was unconscious, so I couldn’t ask him,” Mai said.
Du died in the hospital a few days later, in October 2015, and members of his family told an interviewer that they believed he had been tortured in custody. The next month, two of their lawyers were assaulted outside the family home by what the lawyers said were eight masked men.
Nearly two years later, Mai is still searching for closure. “Two months before he died, he was healthy,” she said during an emotional interview at home on the rural fringe of Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi. “How did he turn out like this?”
Vietnam has been slowly updating its criminal justice system for years, under pressure from Western governments, and additional changes approved by the National Assembly in June are scheduled to take effect in January. But diplomats and rights groups have long suspected, based on interviews with former inmates and reports in Vietnam’s state-run news media, that prisons in the country have high rates of executions, forced labour and deaths in custody.
A recent government report on Vietnam’s prison system — which was posted on an official website a few months ago, possibly by accident, according to rights activists — appears to confirm many of the activists’ worst fears.
In one section, the report said 429 prisoners had been executed from August 2013 to June 2016, a rare admission from a one-party government that has long kept its execution process opaque. According to Amnesty International, that means Vietnam had the world’s third-highest execution rate over that period, after China and Iran.
Another section, referring to the period from 20112016, said 261,840 inmates had received vocational training, a term that rights activists say essentially means forced labour. In addition, the report said, the remains or ashes of 2,812 prisoners were approved for collection by family members, suggesting a high rate of deaths in custody for a prison population that the government says numbers less than 150,000.
“It’s very easy to die there,” said Doan Trang, an independent journalist in Hanoi who has written extensively about state-led repression in the country.
The recent government report presented prison statistics as part of a long-term process of changes in line with global trends. It noted, for example, that the number of crimes punishable by death in Vietnam had fallen to 22 in 2009 from 45 in 1993.
The report also said, however, that the number of people on death row in Vietnam had climbed to 681 last year from 336 in 2011, and that the government planned to build five execution centres to accommodate demand.
Do Thi Mai’s 17-year-old son, Do Dang Du, died after falling into a coma while in police custody.