A confrontation has escalated between police and human rights lawyers, who have taken up the case of a teenager who died from injuries sustained in police custody.
The lawyers suffered a violent assault, and one was temporarily detained, after they tried to represent the mother of the youth, 17-year-old Do Dang Du, who was allegedly beaten and tortured by police before he died.
The police say Du was beaten by a cell mate in an argument over washing up.
The lawyers, Tran Thu Nam and Le Luan, allege that a policeman was involved in the attack on them, and they have tried to press criminal charges against him and his accomplices.
They suffered cuts and bruises to the head in the assault by eight masked men, who had pursued their car on motorcycles, after they had held a meeting with Du’s mother.
They said they had been seeking information for a report to the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The police deny everything
The police department of Hanoi called a press conference on November 10 to deny any involvement in the attack on the lawyers.
The police spokesman, Colonel Nguyen Van Vien, blamed local youths who, he said, had been annoyed by dust
kicked up by the tyres from the lawyers’ car.
He acknowledged, however, that a local policeman, identified by the name of Cuu, happened to have passed by at the time of the assault, but he denied he was involved.
The lawyers said they had recognised the police officer and that he had been one of the assailants.
They took their case to the Hanoi People’s Procuracy, which is charged with oversight of the Hanoi police, and appointed another lawyer, Tran Vu Hai, to lead the team representing them.
Two days later, Hai was arrested by plainclothes police at his apartment.
Some 200 of his clients, mainly farmers who have lost their land in disputes with local government, quickly went to the police station to demand his release.
They chanted slogans, denouncing what they called his illegal detention.
They were met by dozens of police, who formed up outside the police station, but there were no clashes and Mr Hai was released that night.
Most lawyers stay silent
Police owned newspapers then published stories denouncing Hai as an “unethical lawyer”. He says he is now considering legal action the newspapers for defamation.
The struggle between lawyers and the police is unusual in Vietnam, where very few of the 30,000 registered lawyers are prepared to take on human rights cases.
Those who take on such cases stand little chance of winning their cases and risk retribution from the police.
The right to legal representation is also strictly curtailed, with lawyers needing permission from prosecutors before they can meet their clients.