Attorneys in Vietnam say their ability to defend their clients in court is being undercut by threats and physical abuse the lawyers themselves face, often at the hands of state authorities.
Defense lawyers in civil cases and politically charged ones said they not only encounter the usual obstacles to their work in a country with a long history of corruption — long pre-trial detentions of clients, witness intimidation, and politically motivated charges — but they also have been threatened and, in some cases, beaten by police and investigators who want defendants to be found guilty.
Attorney Le Hoang Tung from Everest Law Firm filed a complaint after he was assaulted this month by an investigator while meeting with police officers in Ho Chi Minh City.
City police denied the accusation on Wednesday, saying that the investigator did not assault Tung and that the lawyer was injured when he slipped and fell. They failed to explain why there were shoe marks on Tung’s shirt — evidence supporting the accusation that the investigator kicked the lawyer.
In response, the Vietnam Bar Federation (VBF), which protects the rights of lawyers, submitted a request to police to investigate the incident, and to act against people who abuse attorneys or otherwise interfere with their ability to practice law.
Attorney Nguyen Van Hau, a standing member of the VBF, told RFA on Wednesday that the organization sent requests to the directorates of the Ho Chi Minh City police and procuracy, which must provide public responses and handle the case in accordance with the law.
“As for our part at VBF, we will monitor [the case] and protect the legitimate rights of lawyers participating in legal proceedings,” he said.
Vietnam’s Law on Lawyers ensures that attorneys have the right to take part in legal proceedings, provide legal services, and protect justice, individuals and organizations’ rights and interests, and citizens’ rights to democracy and freedom.
“No one can violate these rights,” Hau said.
Tung’s case appears to involve the wrongdoing of single person, he said.
“Sometimes, after lawyers raise an issue, the two sides [lawyers and investigators] start to argue with each other, and then they lose control,” said Hau. “If violations are detected, they should be handled properly and seriously. According to the Constitution, the body of a person is inviolable. Assaulting an ordinary person is already an infringement.”
Defending their rights
Other lawyers have suffered physical attacks in recent years.
In November 2015, attorneys Tran Thu Nam and Le Van Luan were attacked by a group of eight people wearing face masks after they visited Do Thi Mai, whose son, Do Dang Dung, had been beaten to death at a temporary detention center.
Prior to that, Mai said that Hanoi police had forced her to refuse access to lawyers. Nam and Luan then met with her to learn more about the case.
In November 2021, attorney Ngo Anh Tuan from the Hanoi Bar Association reported that local police chased him away when he visited a client in Thanh Khuong commune, Bac Ninh province.
“I will fulfill the responsibilities and protect the dignity of a lawyer until the last day I have my lawyer’s card,” he wrote on Facebook at the time. “I will have zero tolerance and will fight against all the violations of mine and my colleagues’ lawful rights.”
Attorney Nguyen Duy Binh was representing colleague Tran Vu Hai, who as a lawyer defended political dissidents until he was accused of tax evasion, when Binh was forcefully escorted out of the courtroom by police for asking a defendant if the court had denied her request to petition five other lawyers to represent her. Binh was detained for a short time, before being released.
Speaking about the incident, Binh told RFA on May 18 that he had been treated violently at least three times by people working in the justice system and that police had confiscated his mobile phone and deleted all of his data.
Binh said that more attorneys are being assaulted by police due because Vietnam’s judiciary system” that enables investigative agencies and police investigators to prevent lawyers from doing their job.
“Investigators don’t want lawyers to get involved in the cases they are working on because lawyers will make it harder for them to accuse suspected people and prove them guilty,” he said.
“Perhaps, they think that lawyers will give advice to their clients in accordance with the law, making their clients more confident in answering questions and issues raised by investigative agencies,” said Binh.
Lack of judicial independence
In its annual worldwide human rights report last year, the U.S. State Department identified the lack of judicial independence as a key shortcoming in Vietnam.
“The law provides for an independent judiciary, but the judiciary was effectively under the control of the [Communist Party of Vietnam], it said in the report, covering the year 2020. “There were credible reports political influence, endemic corruption, bribery, and inefficiency strongly distorted the judicial system,” it added, noting that “most, if not all, judges were members of the CPV.”
Observers say attorneys who work as defense lawyers in political or sensitive cases are more likely to be assaulted.
The number of cases in which police officers “raised their arms” or “lifted their legs” and “bumped” into people, including lawyers, with the intent to injure them have become common, attorney Dang Dinh Minh told RFA Wednesday.
“Even lawyers who have good understanding of the law are sometimes victims of this problem,” he said.
He suggested that authorities take a hard look at the problem and prosecute perpetrators.
“Calling it by its true name would make it easier to address the issue in accordance with the law,” Minh said. “This is not only a sanction but also a deterrent to prevent the violation from being perpetuated. It would also help the relationship between citizens and law enforcement officers be healthy again.”
Translated by Anna Vu for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.