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Denial of Fair Public Trial
The Constitution provides for the independence of judges and lay assessors; however, in practice, the CPV controls the courts closely at all levels, selecting judges, at least in part, for their political reliability. Constitutional safeguards were significantly lacking. The CPV had strong influence over high profile cases and cases in which a person was charged with challenging or harming the CPV or the State. During the year, CPV and government officials likely exerted influence over court decisions by making clear their wishes to both the lay assessors and the judges who sat on a panel together to decide cases. The National Assembly votes for judicial nominees presented by the President for the Supreme People's Court (SPC) President and Supreme People's Procuracy. The National Assembly also controls the judiciary's budget, including judges' salaries, just as it controls the budgets and salaries of all other parts of the Government. Provincial and district governments disburse judges' salaries at their respective levels, just as they disburse the salaries of other local officials. The State President appoints all other judges, not the President of the SPC. This power is granted in the Constitution. In September 2002, the Government transferred local courts from the Ministry of Justice to the SPC, in an effort to increase judicial independence. There was no evidence that this change had any effect on the independence of the courts.
The system of appointing judges and lay assessors also reflected the lack of judicial independence. Court of First Instance Panels at district and provincial levels include judges and lay assessors, but provincial appeals courts and the Supreme People's Court are composed of judges only. People's Councils appoint lay assessors at the district and provincial levels. Lay assessors are required to have "high moral standards," but legal training is not necessary. District and provincial People's Councils appoint the lay assessors at the lower levels. The VFF must approve candidates for SPC lay assessors. The SPC President appoints the District People's Court and Provincial People's Court judges to 5-year terms. The SPC President also appoints SPC judges from candidates approved by a judicial selection panel under the influence of the CPV. The CPV's influence over the courts was amplified both because the People's Councils appointed the lay assessors, and because the judges served limited terms and were subject to review.
The judiciary consists of the Supreme People's Court; the district and provincial People's Courts; military tribunals; administrative, economic, and labor courts; and other tribunals established by law. Each district throughout the country has a district People's Court, which serves as the court of first instance for most domestic, civil, and criminal cases. Each province has a provincial People's Court, which serves as the appellate forum for district court cases, as well as courts of first instance for other cases. The SPC is the highest court of appeal and review. The SPC reports to the National Assembly. Administrative courts deal with complaints by citizens about official abuse and corruption.
Military tribunals operate under the same rules as other courts, but the Ministry of Defense (MOD) provides their funding. Tribunal judges and assessors are military personnel, chosen jointly by the SPC and the MOD but supervised by the SPC. The MOD is represented on the judicial selection panels, and the head of the military tribunal system is the deputy head of the SPC. A 2002 law gives military courts jurisdiction over all criminal cases involving military entities, including military-owned enterprises. The military has the option of using the administrative, economic, or labor courts for civil cases.
The VFF did not have any legal standing to settle legal issues itself. In addition, the CPV and the Government set up special committees to help resolve local disputes.
The Supreme People's Procuracy brings charges against the accused and serves as prosecutor during trials. A judging council, made up of a judge and one or more lay assessors, determines guilt or innocence and also passes sentence. Although the Constitution provides that citizens are innocent until proven guilty, a foreign legal expert who analyzed the court system during 2000 found that more than 95 percent of the persons who were charged with a crime were convicted. Some lawyers complained that judges generally presumed guilt.
There was a shortage of trained lawyers and judges and no independent bar association. At the Supreme Court level, there was a 20 percent shortage of qualified judges in 2002. According to a U.N. official, 30 to 40 percent more judges were needed at the provincial level. Low salaries hindered the development of a trained judiciary. The few judges who had formal legal training often studied abroad in countries with socialist legal traditions. Young educated judges usually had little influence within the system.
The Government conducted training programs to address the problem of inadequately trained judges and other court officials. A number of foreign governments and the U.N. Development Program (UNDP) provided assistance to strengthen the rule of law and to develop a more effective judiciary; however, the lack of openness in the criminal judicial process and the continuing lack of independence of the judiciary undermined these efforts.
Although the Constitution provides for legal counsel for persons accused of criminal offenses, the scarcity of lawyers made this provision impossible to implement. With few qualified attorneys, the procurator often handled both the prosecution and the defense, resulting in legal counsel that frequently provided little help to the defendant. Consistent with its Marxist-Leninist political system, the Government required that the Bar Association be a member of the VFF. At the provincial level, the Bar Association was subordinate to representatives of the central Government, the VFF, the provincial People's Council, and the People's Committee.
Trials generally were open to the public; however, judicial authorities closed trials or strictly limited attendance in sensitive cases. Defendants have the right to be present at their trial and to have a lawyer. The defendant or the defense lawyer have the right to cross-examine witnesses; however, there were credible reports that defendants were not allowed access to government evidence in advance of the trial, to cross-examine witnesses, or to challenge statements. Lawyers reported that they often had little time before trials to examine evidence to be presented against their clients. Those who were convicted had the right to appeal. The courts did not publish their proceedings.
The Government continued to imprison persons for the peaceful expression of dissenting religious and political views. There were no reliable estimates of the number of political prisoners, because the Government usually did not publicize such arrests, rejected the concept of political and religious prisoners, and sometimes conducted closed trials and sentencing sessions. There were 14 prisoners known to be held for political reasons and 21 prisoners held for religious reasons. Other sources estimated that numbers could be much higher. Among those believed to be detained or imprisoned were political activists Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, Col. Pham Que Duong, Tran Van Khue, Tran Dung Tien, Pham Hong Son, Nguyen Vu Binh, Nguyen Dinh Huy (who reportedly was suffering from Parkinson's disease), Le Chi Quang, Nguyen Khac Toan, journalist Pham Thai, and religious persons Father Nguyen Van Ly, Ngo Van Thong, Pham Minh Tri, Le Minh Triet, Nguyen Chau Lang, Truong Van Duc, Bui Van Hue, Dinh Troi, Pham Van Tuong, Ho Van Trong, Ha Hai, Thich Thien Minh, Nguyen Thien Phung, Hoang Trong Dung, Nguyen Van Lia, Ly A Hu, and Ly A Cho.
The Government amnestied at least 750 prisoners during the year, but no political or religious prisoners were known to be among them; however, the Government reduced the sentences of at least 4 political prisoners during the year.
The Government claimed that it did not hold any political or religious prisoners and that persons described as political or religious prisoners were convicted of violating national security laws or general criminal laws. In February, local authorities released or commuted the sentences of 246 prisoners from Ho Chi Minh City's Chi Hoa and Bo La prisons for good behavior in advance of the Lunar New Year holiday. On the occasion of the September 2 National Day, local authorities amnestied an additional 544 prisoners in Hanoi, Haiphong, and Ho Chi Minh City, releasing 120 before the end of their prison terms and reducing the sentences of the remainder by 2 to 20 months. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported that none of the persons amnestied were listed as persons of concern by foreign governments or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
The Government did not allow access by humanitarian organizations to political prisoners.
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