Vietnam urged to tackle 'alarming' rate of police abuse

HANOI (Reuters) - Abuses by Vietnam's powerful police force are occurring at an alarming rate, a rights group said on Tuesday, and it urged the government to rein-in offenders and create bodies to investigate complaints of beatings, torture and killings.

Tracking four years of alleged abuse of suspects in custody, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Vietnam's Communist government needed to recognise the scale of the problem and urgently initiate police reforms. "What we have uncovered is a human rights crisis in the daily operations of the Vietnam police," Mr Phil Robertson, HRW's deputy Asia director, told a news conference in Bangkok. "We're convinced that what we're presenting today is the tip of a much larger iceberg," he added, according to a transcript provided by HRW.

The group said many victims of police brutality were accused of only minor crimes like speeding or petty theft. It cited 14 deaths in custody - four unexplained, six alleged suicides and four from illness - and documented 31 cases of police beatings, among them eight children.

Mr Robertson said the report was far from a quantitative survey and "more a snapshot of a serious situation". The rights group did not interview witnesses or suspects itself for fear it could put them in danger.

It drew largely on what it described as patchy coverage of the issue in by Vietnam's state-controlled media and from bloggers keen to document cases of police brutality.

Vietnam's government did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the HRW report and its recommendations.

Reforming the police force could, however, be a tall order in Vietnam. The force is overseen by the Ministry of Public Security, which has a big stake in politics and numerous areas of society and administration.

Several ministers, current and former, are politburo members and the remit of the ministry is far-reaching.

The rights group recommended that the government establish an independent police complaints commission, local-level internal affairs units, a tracking system to address allegations of abuse and ensure interrogations of suspects were videotaped.

Minister of Public Security Tran Dai Quang last week said during a hearing of the justice committee of Vietnam's Parliament that action was being taken against policemen accused of abuses and cases had risen from 2011 to the end of last year.

Mr Quang said that of the 828 police accused of "infringing upon judicial activities", 23 were charged with using corporal punishment. Mr Quang did not disclose if any had been jailed.

Mr Robertson described the hearing as remarkable but said far more needed to be done. "For now, it's clear that the Vietnam police are mostly getting away with these abuses," he said.