‘Very easy’ to die in pris­ons here

Toronto Star - - WORD WEEKLY | DISPATCHES - MIKE IVES THE NEW YORK TIMES

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.

AMANDA MUS­TARD/THE NEW YORK TIMES

Do Thi Mai’s 17-year-old son, Do Dang Du, died af­ter fall­ing into a coma while in po­lice cus­tody.

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