Do Thi Mai, the mother of a 17-year-old boy who died after falling into a coma while in police custody, at home in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. “How did he turn out like this?” she asked. Credit Amanda Mustard for The New York Times
HANOI, Vietnam — 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 the police of stealing about $90.
The police initially said that Mr. 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,” Ms. Mai said.
Mr. 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, Ms. 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 labor 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 2011 to 2016, said 261,840 inmates had received vocational training, a term that rights activists say essentially means forced labor. 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.
The statistics “give us reason to doubt that governance is becoming less authoritarian and violent as Vietnam transitions to a market economy,” said Benjamin Swanton, a longtime social justice advocate and development consultant in Vietnam.
Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to emailed questions about conditions in Vietnamese prisons.
Many officials in Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party support changes to the criminal justice system, said Pip Nicholson, a professor at Melbourne Law School in Australia who specializes in Vietnamese law. But party officials who advocate for Western-style rules, such as truly independent courts or the presumption of innocence until proved guilty, she added, are in the minority.
The result, policy experts and rights advocates say, is a court system where arrests almost always lead to convictions and a prison system where human rights are an afterthought. Corruption, impunity and violence in prisons are mostly tolerated, these advocates say, because the system serves the party’s interests by silencing dissidents and enriching prison guards.
“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 new execution centers to accommodate demand.
The global trend is a reduction in the use of the death penalty, said Janice Beanland, a campaigner at Amnesty International. “This is why it’s a bit shocking to us to learn that, in actual fact, Vietnam has been executing people more regularly than we believed,” she said.
The government report said that Vietnam had improved vocational education in prisons and that inmates received training in tasks like sewing, construction, carpentry, mechanics, farming and the processing of agricultural products.
But former prisoners and human rights groups say that such labor is usually not voluntary, and that the cashews, garments and other products are exported from prison workshops for a profit.
Doan Huy Chuong, a labor rights activist who was released in February after a seven-year prison term, said it was common for prisoners to rise at 6 a.m. and do manual labor, without pay, until anywhere from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Prisoners with money can bribe their way into hospitals if they fall ill, he said. “Without money, if they have a fever, they still have to work,” he added.
Rights advocates said they were especially worried about the government report’s claim that the remains and ashes of 2,812 prisoners were approved for collection by family members.
In a 2014 report, Human Rights Watch said that prisoners who died in custody were often being held for minor infractions and that the official explanations for their deaths “strained credulity and gave the appearance of systematic cover-ups.” It quoted survivors as saying that police officers had sometimes beaten them to extract confessions for crimes that they denied committing.
“Do I think they start out with the idea of beating someone to death? No,” said Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But do I think that there’s no accountability or controls in the system? Yes. And that’s the fundamental problem.”
In the case of Mr. Du, the teenager who died in custody in 2015, police investigators said for months afterward that his head injury — an inchwide gash — had been caused when his cellmate kicked him on the top of his head, not by a fall in the shower as they initially said, according to Le Luan, one of the family’s lawyers.
The cellmate, Vu Van Binh, was later sentenced to 10 years in jail for “deliberately inflicting injuries.” But Mr. Luan said in an interview that he believed the police explanation of Mr. Du’s death was littered with forensic inconsistencies.
For example, he said, citing an X-ray he provided to The New York Times, the wound was on Mr. Du’s forehead, not the top of his head. It was also hard to imagine, he said, how Mr. Du’s severe leg injuries could have been caused by falling onto a toilet in the bathroom, as the authorities claimed.
The causes that the police described “could not have created such serious wounds,” Mr. Luan said. “There must have been another incident.”
Members of Mr. Du’s extended family said in a separate interview that they were still not sure how he had died.
The only certainty, they said, is that something about the official explanation does not add up.
“He did something wrong,” Mr. Du’s grandfather Do Dinh Van said as he stood beside a makeshift altar that the family had created for the boy in their bare living room. “But he didn’t deserve to die.”