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Japan | Trial ruling date for man accused of 1966 murder set for September

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Iwao Hakamada, who in a rare example is being retried over a 1966 murder case, will be given a verdict on Sept. 26, the Shizuoka District Court said Wednesday, which could see him finally acquitted more than five decades after he was sentenced to death by the same court. In the last trial session, prosecutors again sought the death penalty for the 88-year-old, saying there is enough evidence to show that Hakamata is the perpetrator, while defense lawyers argued that he is not guilty.

Communist Vietnam's secret death penalty conveyor belt: How country trails only China and Iran for 'astonishing' number of executions

A death row inmate is seen being led  blindfolded into an execution chamber in Vietnam
Prisoners are dragged from their cells at 4am without warning to be given a lethal injection

Vietnam's use of the death penalty has been thrust into the spotlight after a real estate tycoon was on Thursday sentenced to be executed in one of the biggest corruption cases in the country's history.

Truong My Lan, a businesswoman who chaired a sprawling company that developed luxury apartments, hotels, offices and shopping malls, was arrested in 2022.

The 67-year-old was formally charged of fraud amounting to $12.5 billion (nearly 3 percent of the country's 2022 GDP) and handed the sentence - rare in financial crime cases and for someone as well known as Lan - today.

Vietnam and its communist government is famously secretive about its state-sanctioned executions. But while there is a lack of data, rights groups believe the country to be one of the world's most prolific executioners.

Data published in 2017 by Vietnamese media outlets - that had previously been classified - revealed 429 people had been executed between 2013 and 2016, revealing the sheer scale of the death penalty's use in the country.

This put it behind only China and Iran in its use of state executions, with the conditions on Vietnam's death row thought to be equally as barbaric.

Prisoners are not told when they will be executed and therefore kept in a state of constant suspense. When the sentence is carried out, they are dragged from their cells at 4am, strapped to a gurney, and injected with a lethal dose of drugs.

In its annual reports on the death penalty around the world, Amnesty international does not include figures from Vietnam on account of a lack of data.

In its latest report - released last year - it found a spike in the use of confirmed executions globally - 825 in 2022, up from 520 in 2021.

But this does not include figures from China (where it is believed thousands are executed every year), as well as countries such as Afghanistan, North Korea, Syria - as well as Vietnam - all known to extensively use the death penalty.

Citing 'partial disclosures' from the Vietnamese authorities, however, Amnesty believes there was a rapid increase in the number of death sentences between October 1, 2020 and July 31, 2021. It also reported that 11 of the country's execution facilities were used throughout 2021.

While the rights group said no data was available on the number of executions carried out in 2022, it did have a record of more than 102 people being handed a death sentence - down from 119 the previous year.

It also said at the time more than 1,200 people were on death row in the country, including foreign nationals from nearby Laos, Cambodia, Singapore and Malaysia.

Nguyen Thi Huong, a 73-year-old Australian woman convicted of drug trafficking, is also on death row in the country.

She was sentenced to death by lethal injection in 2016 after she was accused of boarding a flight to Australia with 2.6 kilograms of heroin in 2014.

The vast majority of death sentences in the country are handed down for drug offences, Amnesty says.

In 2021, of the 119 that were issued, 93 were related to narcotics. 

Life for those on death row in Vietnam is known to be a living nightmare.

Executions are understood to take place at 4am, and prisoners are not informed in advance of their execution date, meaning they live in a constant state of fear.

According to the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR), prisoners stay awake all night, fearing their time could come.

They only sleep at 6am when they know they are in the clear - for that day at least.

For those who are chosen to be executed, they are taken from their cells in the early hours of the morning to an execution chamber - an imposing concrete building.

According to accounts from past executions, the condemned is strapped flat on their back in a straight jacket, tied to a gurney, and injected with a lethal cocktail of deadly drugs: a lethal injection.

But unlike other countries where the death row inmate is permitted family to be present for their final moments, in Vietnam, this is not allowed.

This is according to one mother whose son - a 31-year-old salesman who was found guilty of drug trafficking - was executed in 2021.

'There is nothing that can prepare you for something like that,' Mai Linh told CNN in 2022. 'There isn't a day that goes by when I don't think about how he died.'

'The pain is unexplainable. The death penalty is a different kind of evil. One that will haunt me for the rest of my life,' she added.

VCHR has also reported in the past about seriously deteriorating conditions on death row, with some prisoners even begging to be executed as soon as possible rather than live with the terror of knowing any night could be their last.

Several prisoners are known to have committed suicide, including 35-year-old Nguyen Tien - who took his own life in prison in 2013.

VCHR has also sounded the alarm over a lack of transparency in Vietnam's legal system, inadequate access to defence council and unfair trials - factors that can all lead to wrongful convictions, and thus the wrong person being executed.

The group argued in a report in 2016 that in the country's one-party state, the judiciary is not independent, and the influence of the Communist Party on judicial proceedings is 'pervasive'. 

'Judges are invariably members of the Communist Party, and are often subjected to political pressure when pronouncing verdicts,' it said in the report.

It points to the National Assembly's Standing Committee declaring that at least 71 wrongful convictions had been handed out over the three years prior to 2015.

One of those cases, VCHR highlights, was the case of 29-year-old Ho Duy Hai, who was sentenced to death in 2008.

In December 2014, the day before he was due to be executed, Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang, halted his execution.

Despite the known issues in Vietnam's judicial system, the country's Communist Party has long defended the use of executions, with state documents released in 2017 showing the public security ministry had approved the use of lethal injections.

Under Vietnam's criminal code, eighteen crimes are punishable by death.

These include crimes such as murder, rape of a minor under 16, terrorism, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The death sentence can also be handed to people guilty of rebellion, the embezzlement of property or receiving bribes (in the case of officials), as well as some drug-related crimes, such as trafficking or trading.

Speaking to CNN in 2022, Amnesty's death penalty expert Chiara Sangiorgio said Vietnam's lack of transparency around its executions 'has certainly contributed to a lack of information and international spotlight on the subject.'

'We have written to the authorities seeking information, as we do for all countries that still retain the death penalty every year in preparation of our report. We did not receive any response,' she said at the time. 

In the same article, the American broadcaster spoke to Ben Swanton, advocacy director of the 88 Project - an organisation advocating for free speech in Vietnam.

'Vietnam continues to execute people at an astonishing rate,' he said in 2022. 

'The Vietnamese Communist Party is aware that its use of the death penalty contradicts its narrative of the country being a peaceful and harmonious society and has the potential to damage its international reputation.' 

Human Rights Watch's Asia deputy director Phil Robertson told CNN that Vietnam was one of the 'worst rights-abusing states' in Southeast Asia.

A death row inmate is seen eating their last meal and smoking their final cigarette
'The death penalty in Vietnam is used to intimidate those who would break the law, while also showing the power of the ruling party,' he added. 

Truong My Lan's sentence, therefore, could ultimately lead to unwanted attention on Vietnam's death penalty laws for the country's Communist Party.

A panel of three hand-picked jurors and two judges rejected all defence arguments by Lan, chair of major developer Van Thinh Phat, who was found guilty of swindling cash from Saigon Commercial Bank (SCB) over a decade.

'The defendant's actions... eroded people's trust in the leadership of the (Communist) Party and state,' read the verdict at the trial in Ho Chi Minh City.

After the five-week trial, 85 others were also sentenced on charges ranging from bribery and abuse of power to appropriation and violations of banking law. 

Four were given life imprisonment, while the others received jail terms ranging between 20 years and three years suspended.

Lan's husband, Hong Kong billionaire Eric Chu Nap Kee, was sentenced to nine years in prison. Her niece, Truong Hue Van, the chief executive of Van Thinh Phat, was sentenced to 17 years in prison for aiding her aunt.

Lan embezzled $12.5 billion, but prosecutors said Thursday the total damages caused by the scam now amounted to $27 billion - a figure equivalent to six percent of the country's 2023 GDP.

The court ordered Lan, 67, to pay almost the entire damages sum in compensation.

Lan and the others were arrested as part of a national corruption crackdown that has swept up numerous officials and members of Vietnam's business elite.

She appeared to say in final remarks to the court last week that she had thoughts of suicide. 'In my desperation, I thought of death,' she said, according to state media.

'I am so angry that I was stupid enough to get involved in this very fierce business environment - the banking sector - which I have little knowledge of.'

Hundreds of people began to stage protests in the capital Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, a relatively rare occurrence in the one-party communist state, after Lan's arrest in October 2022.

Police have identified around 42,000 victims of the scandal, which has shocked the Southeast Asian country.

Among them is Nga, a 67-year-old Hanoi resident who told AFP Thursday that she had hoped for a life sentence for Lan so she could live to fully witness the pain her actions had caused ordinary people.

'Many people worked hard to deposit money into the bank, but now she's received the death sentence and that's it for her,' said Nga, using a pseudonym to protect her identity. 'She can't see the suffering of the people.'

Nga has so far been unable to retrieve the $120,000 she invested with SCB.

Lan was accused of setting up fake loan applications to withdraw money from SCB, in which she owned a 90 percent stake.

Police say the scam's victims are all SCB bondholders who cannot withdraw their money and have not received interest or principal payments since Lan's arrest.

Prosecutors said during the trial they had seized more than 1,000 properties belonging to her.

Authorities have also said $5.2 million allegedly given by Lan and some SCB bankers to state officials to conceal the bank's violations and poor financial situation was the largest-ever bribe recorded in Vietnam.

Do Thi Nhan, the former head of the State Bank of Vietnam's inspection team, was sentenced to life in prison for receiving bribes. She said during the trial that millions of dollars was handed to her in Styrofoam boxes by the former CEO of SCB.

More than 4,400 people have been indicted during Vietnam's corruption crackdown, across more than 1,700 graft cases, since 2021.

A top Vietnamese luxury property tycoon - Do Anh Dung, head of the Tan Hoang Minh group - was sentenced to eight years in prison last month after he was found guilty of cheating thousands of investors in a $355 million bond scam.

Source: dailymail.co.uk, Chris Jewers, April 12, 2024

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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted."

— Oscar Wilde



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