A military court in Vietnam’s central region sentenced five soldiers to a total of 41 years in prison on charges of causing the death of another soldier last year, a punishment the victim’s bereaved father said was too light.
Nguyen Van Thien, born in 1998 in central Vietnam’s Gia Lai province, began his mandatory military service in February 2020 and was just one month shy of finishing his two-year stint when he was found dead in a barracks bathroom last November.
“Five people have been jailed, but the sentencing was not right,” Nguyen Van Lam, Thien’s father, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
According to the investigation, the object that struck Nguyen Van Thein’s head and caused his death was a five-liter plastic pail. The defendant who was holding the pail when the death occurred claimed the death was an accident.
“The plastic pail is too light to kill anyone,” Lam said. “The defendants described their positions when the killing happened, but it did not sound right. According to the lawyers, it was impossible to use a light plastic pail to cause someone’s death. So, we are not sure of the cause of death or who the killer is.”
Four of the defendants were in the same platoon as Thien. Ksor Dim and Rmah Tuy were both sentenced to seven years, while Nguyen Dinh Tam, who was said to have been the main culprit, and Tran Van Mao, who stuck Thien in the head with the plastic pail, received nine-and-a-half year sentences. Squad leader Tran Duc Loi, meanwhile, got eight years.
According to the military procuracy’s report issued on April 25th, 2022, three soldiers, Nguyen Van Thien, Huynh Van Trung and Nguyen Van Hung went out for drinks at 3 p.m. on Nov. 29, 2021.
Their platoon leader discovered their absence after a roll call later in the day, and the platoon began searching for them.
At about 7 p.m. Nguyen Dinh Tam and the three other defendants in the platoon discussed what punishments they could face because of Thien, Trung and Hung. According to the court, Nguyen Dinh Tam persuaded the others to beat the three absent soldiers for revenge.
At 9 p.m., while in bed, Thien was called to the bathroom and beaten by the five defendants until he fell unconscious.
The defendants said that they tried to wake him up but could not, so they returned to their bunks thinking that Thien had blacked out because he had drunk too much.
A moment later, another soldier passed by the bathroom and found Thien lying on the ground with foam in his mouth. He called for help, but Thien was pronounced dead on the way to the hospital.
During the trial, a representative of the Gia Lai military command told Thein’s family that the bruises on his body were from autopsy cuts and because he fell, not because he was engaged in a fight.
Vietnamese state media has not reported on the trial.
Le Xuan Anh Phu, the lawyer who represented the victim, told RFA that according to the procuracy’s report, defendant Tran Van Mao was the one who hit Thien’s head with the plastic pail, causing him to fall. At the trial, however, Mao said he slipped and fell and that the pail had hit Thien’s head by accident.
Phu said he requested another investigation because of discrepancies in the defendants’ statements and because he believes a five-liter plastic pail is too light to cause a serious head injury.
But the request was denied.
“They did not reenact the whole scene. They just examined the scene and then the prosecutors argued that there were many witnesses of the beating, and the defendants testified the same,” Phu said.
“They concluded that they have enough evidence,” he said. “We argued that we need to reenact the whole scene to have a more convincing investigation and to satisfy the bereaved family.”
Additionally, the five-liter pail shown in the courtroom was not the actual pail that struck Thien because investigators could not find the actual pail Mao allegedly used.
Representatives of Gia Lai military command told the court that they have disciplined more than 20 people in this case but did not elaborate on the details.
Phu, the attorney, said that military policy allowing other soldiers to discipline their colleagues indirectly led to Nguyen Van Thien's death. He said that the policy needs to be reviewed.
The victim’s father told RFA that the family will appeal the court’s verdict in an attempt to discover the real cause of his son’s death and determine who the real killer is.
Translated by RFA Vietnamese. Written in English by Eugene Whong.