Vietnamese death row inmate freed, after years challenging murder conviction

By Mai Chi - Bao Hoa   December 21, 2016 | 01:00 am PT
Vietnamese death row inmate freed, after years challenging murder conviction
Han Duc Long (C) with his family in Bac Giang on his first night as a free man after 11 years. Photo by VnExpress/Bao Ha
'I told my family they don't have to cry no more. Because I'm home.' 

Han Duc Long almost could not recognize his wife. It was his first night at home in 11 years, outside a prison cell.

He actually never thought he would see her face ever again.

The 57-year-old prisoner from the northern province of Bac Giang was released on Tuesday, after spending more than a decade in prison with a death sentence for murder and rape.

"I couldn't believe it," Long said of his freedom, on the first night home. Most family members could not stop crying.

The man was arrested in October 2005, four months after the rape and murder of a 5-year-old girl in the village.

Investigators named him the prime suspect after there were accusations by a woman and her daughter in the village that Long had raped both of them before.

Later Long confessed that he had raped and killed the child, but later was adamant that his confession was extracted under duress.

During his trial in 2007, he pleaded not guilty. The court ruled otherwise and sentenced him to death. Over the years, he continued to challenge the conviction. Three appeals trials did not clear his name, but at least no execution date was set.

His wife Nguyen Thi Mai, 46, also kept fighting for justice. The farmer said her husband was innocent because she was with him at the time of the crime, an alibi that she mentioned again and again in letters sent out to various agencies almost every month.

“I never received a response but I always believed that one day someone would read one of them,” Mai said.

In 2014, the Supreme People’s Court ordered a fresh investigation. Over the next two years, investigators reopened the case. They first treated him as a suspect and kept him in prison the whole time.

Bac Giang prosecutors this month decided all charges against him should be dropped and asked that he be let go. It remains unclear if and how much he would be compensated.

Mai said her family was not informed of Long’s release and they were all surprised when he knocked the door at 7 p.m. on Tuesday.

She said life for her and their two children had been difficult over the last decade.

“We became so poor,” she said. “People refused to lend me money because they thought I could never repay them.”

Mai said she used to lie to their grandchildren that Long was working in Hanoi.

“Now they do not have to keep asking me where he is, because he’s right here.”

Bac Giang’s justice system raised questions once in late 2013 when Nguyen Thanh Chan, now 55, was released after serving 10 years in prison for wrongful murder charges. His wife's investigation reportedly forced the real murderer to turn himself in.

Chan also complained that police officers threatened to kill him and forced him to plead guilty.

Miscarriage of justice has grabbed headlines in Vietnam over the past years.

Most recent data released by Vietnam’s top legislature, the National Assembly, in mid-2015 showed that at least 71 people were wrongfully charged or convicted in the country from October 2011 to September 2014.

Most of the cases were about murder, robbery and child rape.

Investigators have dropped 31 of the cases after finding that the suspects were innocent. In 12 other cases, they failed to find evidence to support the charges within the given time frame.

Prosecutors dropped nine cases themselves and appeals courts overturned criminal verdicts against 19 convicts.

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