Authorities say sorry, 39 years after charging innocents with murder

By Pham Du   October 8, 2019 | 03:00 am PT
Authorities say sorry, 39 years after charging innocents with murder
Tran Ngoc Trinh sits in his house in Vinh Phuc Province in northern Vietnam. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Du.
One innocent man who died in prison and two others wrongly accused of murder get an apology 39 years later.

"Lunch is ready. Hurry up!"

Tran Ngoc Trinh is in no hurry to eat, however, and ignores his wife's exhortation as he pores over some, old crumpled documents.

After sometime he turns to her, smiling. "It feels like I don't need any food or drink and I can still be happy. In just a few days from now, I will no longer be a murderer."

Trinh and two other men have waited for 39 years to not be murderers.

One of them, his brother, died as a murder accused in prison under suspicious circumstances. His family did not even get to see his body.

All the three men were never taken to trial, and the police stopped their investigations two years after keeping them in jail and torturing at least Trinh to extract a confession.

And, even after the real murderer was found and sentenced, authorities never formally expressed regret or made any reparation, until today, 37 years to the day after Trinh and his co-accused, Khong Van De, were set free and 39 years after Trinh was first detained as a murder suspect.

The People’s Procuracy – the prosecutor's office – of Vinh Phuc Province has said it would publicly apologize to the three men Wednesday.

These days, Trinh’s house in Van Thang Village in Song Lo District’s Dong Thinh Commune is full of joy and laughter, with visitors coming to congratulate him.

At 78, Trinh does not need glasses to read. He reads out aloud the decision issued in 1982, calling off the investigation against him and two others. This is the only document he has received from the authorities after leaving prison.

He can recall every detail of the incident that turned him from a normal farmer into a ‘murderer.’

The murder

On January 28, 1980, the party chief of the village, Chu Van Quan, was killed. While a curious Trinh had gone to the scene of the crime like many others, he had no idea why he was arrested a month later and accused of murder.

For almost eight months he was interrogated twice a day and tortured in order to get him to confess. He did not buckle. Then he was sent to a prison and put in a cell so small it could only fit one person and had just a hole in the wall for light. His feet were tied at all times except during interrogations, during which he was beaten and asked to confess.

Trinh cannot remember for how long this torture lasted, but after "being hurt physically and psychologically," he decided to admit to something he did not do, just for the torture to stop.

In May 1981, the police brought him to his village to demonstrate the crime, but failed to do so. He was taken back to prison, but for a year after that, there was no more interrogation and torture.

When he was in prison, other inmates advised him to escape instead of accepting such an unjust verdict but he refused to do so. But existence was a torture. He had "han doi" (I resent life) tattooed on his chest.

Worse still, the police also imprisoned his younger brother Tran Chung Tham and two other men in the village, Khong Van De and Nguyen Dinh Ky.

In October 1982, the People’s Procuracy of Vinh Phuc issued a decision to stop investigations into Trinh and De as they had not committed the murder. Investigators had found that Ky was the culprit. Ky admitted to all the crimes after confronted with evidence. On June 15, 1983, he was sentenced to life in prison.

Trinh and his neighbor De were allowed to go home on October 10, 1982. But Tham, his brother, died in prison two months after being arrested.

The fog clears, somewhat

Later it came to Trinh’s knowledge that Ky, a policeman, was having an illicit affair with a local woman, and it was the mistress who had anonymously pointed fingers at him and other accused.

Ky had sought permission from higher authorities to join the Communist Party, but Quan, party chief of the village, had refused to sign the documents to approve his application, given his "unclean record."

The conflict escalated to the point where Ky lost his control and killed Quan, following which his mistress wrote an anonymous letter to the police, asking them to investigate Trinh, his brother Tham, and De.

It was the same woman who later informed police what had actually happened.

Authorities have neither confirmed nor denied this.

The accusation lingers

Khong Van De, 95, who has waited 39 years to be publicly cleared for murder. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Du.

Khong Van De, 95, who has waited 39 years to be publicly cleared for murder. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Du.

Trinh’s psychological torture did not end after he was freed from prison and allowed to go home.

His life would never be normal again.

With no clear sign from authorities that he and others were innocent, other families in the village stayed away from not just Trinh, but his wife and kids. For years, his children were teased and discriminated against by their peers and even adults.

When the mental agony and sleeplessness became unbearable, Trinh decided he would pursue wall means to get justice for him and his family.

He roped in his nephew Tran Van Manh, son of his brother who died in prison, into the fight for justice.

Manh said after his father was arrested, his family sought help from everyone they could, but none was forthcoming. He and his two siblings had to drop school halfway because the family ran out of money.

Two months after the police took him away, on May 24, 1980, Manh’s family was informed that his father "had died because of sickness in prison" and when they arrived, police had already buried him because "the family had come late."

After such a shocking travesty of justice, for the past 39 years, no state agency has ever made any official statement saying that his father is cleared of murder, Manh said.

Trinh, De and Tham's children have tirelessly worked for years, sending petitions for a public apology and justice, but nothing happened.

It was only recently that they received help from Nguyen Van Hung of the Vinh Phuc Bar Association.

"Without any official explanation or apology from the authorities, these men and their families have been left in deep misery, 37 years after the case was close," lawyer Hung said.

Hung helped the victims take the case to the highest authorities he could and also had the story published in the Phap Luat Viet Nam newspaper run by the Ministry of Justice.

The case reached the Vietnam Bar Federation, which wrote to the Supreme People’s Procuracy of Vietnam, the nation’s premier prosecution agency, calling for justice for victims who have suffered for no fault of their own.

This has led to the People's Procuracy of Vinh Phuc deciding to make a public apology to Trinh, De and Tham at the office of Dong Thinh Commune on Wednesday, October 10.

Tham’s son, Tran Van Manh, will receive the apology on behalf of his late father.

There is no information on whether the families will be compensated for their decades of suffering.

But for De, who is now 95, the compensation does not mean much.

"I have almost cried of happiness, learning that I will receive an apology, finally. There would be no more torment. Now, when my time comes, I can die in peace."

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