Police abuse and deaths in custody remain a widespread and pervasive problem in Vietnam, alleges the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Over the course of four years, dozens of people have been injured and killed while in police custody, according to a 96-page report, "Public Insecurity: Deaths in Custody and Police Brutality in Vietnam."
"What we have uncovered is a human rights crisis and what we believe to be the tip of a much larger iceberg," said Phil Robertson, HRW's deputy Asia director. The report detailed dozens of cases by reviewing reports available through state-controlled media in Vietnam, foreign news agencies and independent bloggers.
"Police severely abused people in every region of Vietnam. The Vietnam government has a human rights crisis on its hands and should investigate and start holding people accountable," Robertson said.
HRW said that in most cases police officers implicated in killings or abuse were not disciplined or were lightly punished. Victims and witnesses of police abuse cases were not interviewed for the report over concern of retaliation by Vietnamese authorities, he said.
Police in Vietnam usually claim deaths in custody are due to suicides or unexplained illness, Robertson said. But victims were typically healthy and showed no signs of injury or illness prior to detention.
The report said that while some victims were accused of violent crimes, including murder, most were detained for petty offenses, domestic disputes or traffic violations. Beatings and torture are routinely used by police to extract confessions or to punish a detainee, Robertson said.
In a recent example, Huynh Nghia, 39, was beaten to death in February by several officers in Dao Nghia commune in Dak Nong province. Huynh was arrested for allegedly stealing pepper. An examination revealed 33 injuries and bruises to his head and body. Although the police chief and two other officers admitted to beating the victim, police were waiting for “the forensic conclusion for the cause of death” before issuing criminal charges, the report said.
"Only a handful of deaths discussed here received extensive newspaper coverage, usually when victims' families actively sought justice and spoke to the media," HRW said in the report, released Tuesday in Bangkok. "Given enduring constraints on press freedom, there is no doubt that there are many more cases of abuse than are reported here."
While HRW has referenced police abuse in Vietnam in its annual world reports, this report marks the first attempt at a comprehensive cataloging and analysis of cases of police abuse, Robertson told ucanews.com.
"What the report shows is just how systemic and pervasive this problem is," he said.
"If you ask the ordinary Vietnamese what they thought of police, they'll tell you the police are abusive, or they'll tell you a story of a family member or neighbor who was severely beaten up while in custody," he said.
In responding to the report, Amnesty International said torture and indefinite detention has long been a tactic used by police in Vietnam, and can be particularly brutal against political activists. Detainees are often cut off from their families and have little access to legal services.
"Detention without access to the outside world increases the risk of torture and other ill treatment," Rupert Abbott, Amnesty's deputy Asia-Pacific director, told ucanews.com.
"The Vietnamese authorities must investigate all such complaints and reports of torture or other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment promptly, impartially, independently and thoroughly" abusive police officers, he said.
HRW said gathering extensive information on individual cases was difficult given the constraints on media freedom and the dissemination of information in Vietnam.
"This report is a snapshot ... that I hope will bring to light something that has been long hidden," Robertson said.
HRW's investigation examined cases of police brutality from August 2010 and July 2014. Robertson said the report focused on ordinary Vietnamese and not political activists.
"This report is about the people who are out of sight of the international media," he added.