New York-based Human Rights Watch is raising alarms over abuses by police in Vietnam.
The rights group said there have been increases in reports of torture and death of detainees in police custody, especially in rural areas.
Nearly two years ago, Nguyen Tuan Thanh and friend Pham Quoc Nhat were detained by police in Dong Thap province on suspicion of theft.
Pham Quoc Nhat said that when they arrived at the local police station, they were both beaten severely on their wrists, legs and thighs.
Died in custody
Nhat said the next day around noon he no longer could hear the screams of Thanh at the lock up. Thanh died in custody before police took him to the hospital.
Nhat’s is one of dozens of cases cited by Human Rights Watch in its latest report as an example of what it calls pervasive violence and injury of ordinary Vietnamese while in police custody.
The group cited 28 cases of persons who died in custody, with or without adequate explanation, ranging from alleged suicides to death by illness, and 22 cases of severe beatings, including that of an 11-year-old boy.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia Director for Human Rights Watch, said allegations of police abuse of those in custody are widespread. The report tracked cases in 44 out of Vietnam's 58 provinces.
"This report is about farmers, and businessmen, local merchants, students and others who ended up in police custody for activities that you or I would not consider out of the ordinary and where laws were broken, were invariably minor infractions - yet these people ended up dead or injured from beatings inflicted on them by police while they were being held in police custody,” Robertson said.
Basis of report
The report draws on cases cited in government-controlled Vietnamese-language newspapers, from independent bloggers, citizen journalists and foreign news media.
Human Rights Watch said deaths often occurred when police used violence and torture to force confessions. It said while police were implicated, too often they faced either no disciplinary action or light punishment despite the crimes' gravity.
Robertson said there appears to be a much wider crisis in Vietnam's police forces, especially at provincial levels where recruits often receive little training and support.
"What we have uncovered is a human rights crisis in daily operations of the Vietnam police. We're convinced that what we're seeing today is a tip of a much larger iceberg,” Robertson said.
The rights body said there is a need for widespread reforms, greater transparency and accountability for those held in police custody, as well as impartial investigations covering all accusations of police brutality.
Robertson said victims' families also face difficulties when pressing for an official response to the crimes against their relatives.
"The challenge then becomes for these ordinary Vietnamese families - the families of the victims - is whether they can raise enough noise, enough ruckus about the case of their dead or injured relative to compel higher officials or the media to intervene and ensure some sort of more serious investigation takes place,” Robertson said.
Some officers reprimanded
Authorities in Vietnam are taking some steps to address the problem.
On September 11, Tran Dai Quang, Vietnam's minister for public security, admitted to a committee of Vietnam's National Assembly that about 19 police officers had been stripped of their ranks and could face criminal charges over the use of what he called “corporal punishment.”
The Ministry of Public Security also said that over the past three years it pursued 183 other cases involving police who faced administrative punishments, such as being expelled, demoted or transferred.