Death penalty still the public's answer to solving social downfall in Vietnam

By Dien Luong   October 24, 2017 | 06:29 am PT
Public support for capital punishment appears to remain overwhelming, but will simply killing convicts help deter similar crimes?
Policemen stand guard as inmates wait before being released from Hoang Tien prison, about 100km (62 miles) outside Hanoi August 30, 2013. Photo by: Reuters

Policemen stand guard as inmates wait before being released from Hoang Tien prison, about 100km (62 miles) outside Hanoi August 30, 2013. Photo by Reuters

News of Vietnam's decision to abolish the death penalty for five different crimes may have had less of an effect on the public's opinion of criminals than planned. The general reaction has all but corroborated how capital punishment is still widely viewed by the masses as the answer to Vietnam’s entrenched social problems.

Under the new Penal Code, which will take effect in January 2018, robbery, vandalizing equipment and projects vital to national security, opposing order, surrendering to the enemy, and the production and trade of fake food will be removed from Vietnam’s list of capital offenses. That will take the country’s number of capital crimes down from 22 to 17.

But what appears to be more telling is how the public has reacted to this news. An article about the abolition of the death penalty for those crimes published by the Vietnamese-language edition of VnExpress attracted over 80 comments, mostly by outraged readers. The main finger of accusation has been pointed at people convicted of robberies or producing and trading fake food, with readers saying only the death penalty would help to stop these crimes.

“I protest,” Hanh Tong, a reader, wrote. “Scrapping the death penalty will only make life easier for robbers and unscrupulous food dealers.”

Binh, another reader, was even more forthright, essentially demanding an eye for an eye when it came to fatal assaults and robberies. “So it means that robbers don’t have to face death after killing people,” Binh wrote. “These people won't stop robbing unless they face the death penalty.”

Experts say it may be true that the public, frustrated by how growing robberies and rampant unsafe food have taken their toll, are demanding immediate action against the culprits.

The government said in a June report to the National Assembly that 86 percent of Vietnamese people were concerned about food safety. More than a fifth of the three million businesses involved in the food market had committed safety violations, with more than 1,700 food poisoning cases killing 164 people in the past five years, it said.

Phung Quoc Hien, vice chairman of the assembly and head of the unit in charge of supervising food safety, said that “unsafe food is giving Vietnamese people a long, slow death.” Lawmakers have also blamed the government for failing to curb violations and rein in the problem.

Meanwhile, the media have continued to carry story after story of grisly robberies, pointing to a tear in the moral fabric of the country.

But this is the context in which experts say to tackle the root causes of these problems, there is no point in simply killing a person while leaving a broken system untouched.

As the debate on the death penalty has become increasingly heated in Vietnam, experts and sociologists have started asking vexing questions: Does the death penalty tackle the root of the problem? What is the root of the problem? How has Vietnamese society got to the point where such problems continue to go unpunished?

Most experts concur that even though Vietnam has surged economically, the rich-poor gap has continued to widen, along with growing resentment.

"A rising number of people have mysteriously made a windfall and this has done nothing but to add salt to the gaping wounds of the poor,” said Pham Bich San, a Hanoi-based sociologist.

"It is those nouveau riches emerging with no cultural and intellectual base that have fueled jealousy and the desire to have the same from the have-nots," San said.

The widespread disparity has become serious enough even for the Vietnamese leadership to take notice and warn about its repercussions. Several years ago, Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong said that the rich-poor divide had even emerged inside the ruling Party.

“Some members have got rich quickly, leading a lavish life that is miles away from that of the workers,” Trong said in 2012.

Vietnam, which switched to lethal injection from firing squad in 2011, was one of 55 countries around the world to still impose the death sentence in 2016, according to Amnesty International. Official figures from Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security showed that 429 prisoners were executed between August 2013 to June 2016.

Globally, opponents of capital punishment point out that decades of scientific research have never been able to prove that the death penalty has been a deterrent.

They say it has long been observed that crime rates do not correlate with the death penalty. In a report published in 2012, the U.S.-based National Research Council looked at three decades of studies on the deterrent effect of the death penalty for homicide, and concluded that they were all methodologically flawed.

“So it's clear that the deterrence argument cannot and should not be relied upon as the basis for retaining capital punishment,” Delphine Lourtau, a lead researcher at the Cornell University Law School-run website Death Penalty Worldwide, said.

But a Vietnamese law professor in Ho Chi Minh City said whether the death penalty helps deter crime depends very much on the agenda of the researchers.

“Those who want to oppose capital punishment will tailor their research to substantiate their argument,” she said, declining to be named. “Those who are for it will publish research proving otherwise.”

The bottom line is that “a society free of capital punishment is one that has developed to a certain high level in tandem with its citizens’ awareness of the law,” she said.

“Vietnam's current socio-economic conditions don't allow for [abolishing the death penalty].”

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