Mon, Nov 08, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Vietnam taking a closer look at its death penalty

DEBATE The communist state's much-criticized use of capital punishment will be one discussion topic as it prepares to host an EU summit on the matter this month

AFP , HANOI

Long criticized by human rights groups for its widespread use of the death penalty, Vietnam is now tentatively witnessing a debate on the issue, even though most observers consider a ban to be a long way off.

This month the communist state is to host a EU forum on capital punishment -- something that until recently would have been unimaginable.

"The original idea came from the Vietnamese side," a European diplomat told reporters, asking not to be named. "There are lots of positive noises about the debate and we want to encourage that."

In a country where most of the progress in humans rights results from constant international pressure, the move is highly appreciated.

"This is actually a very good human rights story about Vietnam, and there are not so many of them," the diplomat said.

Vietnam has handed down at least 97 death sentences so far this year and put 63 people before the firing squad, according to figures compiled from state media and court officials.

No official figures are available. In January, Vietnam even made it an offence to report information on the death penalty, classified as state secret. The decision was however poorly respected and no one was punished for reporting an execution.

An Australian man of Vietnamese origin was handed the death sentence for drug trafficking by a Ho Chi Minh City court, an official newspaper said Sunday.

International concern over the record is compounded by what is perceived as an inherent unfairness in Vietnam's heavily politicized legal system.

Defendants are seldom able to choose their lawyers, who in turn have little access to their clients. According to a legal expert cited by the US State Department, more than 95 percent of those brought to trial are found guilty.

"Routinely unfair trials in Vietnam mean that the death penalty is imposed under conditions which may lead to irreversible miscarriages of justice," human rights group Amnesty International noted last year.

But signs of change have emerged since April, with plans aired to wipe a number of charges from the capital punishment list, including so-called economic crimes such as bribery and corruption, for which several people are executed annually.

Justice Minister Uong Chu Luu told the local press Friday that he supported the plan and would put the changes before the government, in what he described as an effort "to catch up with the trend of democracy and humanity."

"We will cooperate with relevant anti-crime organizations and agencies, looking for public opinions and learning from the experience of other countries before submitting the proposal," he was quoted by the Tuoi Tre daily as saying.

Nguyen Duy Lam, a top justice ministry official, told reporters the time was ripe for change.

"The death penalty for economic crimes is banned in many countries and is not used in others ... but is retained in Vietnam because of the growth of economically-motivated crime in recent years," he said.

"Many other countries have changed their law, we should change ours."

Any such amendments to the criminal code would have to be approved by the National Assembly, which usually follows Communist Party decisions, and would represent a second major change to the law.

Five years ago Hanoi slashed the number of crimes punishable by death from 44 to 29, but in the interim only the methods of executions have been discussed.

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