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Vietnam: Penal Code Revisions Proposed

(May 19, 2015) On April 7, 2015, Vietnam’s Minister of Justice, Ha Hung Cuong, spoke to the National Assembly Standing Committee. He discussed a plan to revise the Penal Code of 1999. The draft Code now being considered revises the majority of existing articles, adds several dozen new ones, and deletes a small number. (Revised Penal Code Restricts Death Penalty, Increases Non-Jail Sentences, VIETNAM LAW & LEGAL FORUM (Apr. 16, 2015); Penal Code, No. 15/1999/QH10 (Dec. 21, 1999), LEGAL NORMATIVE DOCUMENTS [Vietnamese government website].)

According to the Minister, the purpose of revising the Code is to better implement the rights of Vietnamese as established by the Constitution of 2013. The revisions cover the use of the death penalty, crimes against citizens’ rights, and alternatives to imprisonment. (Revised Penal Code Restricts Death Penalty, Increases Non-Jail Sentences, supra; Viet Nam: New Constitution of 28 Nov 2013, CONSTITUTION.NET [click hyperlink to view English text; click .PDF to download Vietnamese version],)

Proposed Provisions on the Death Penalty

There are currently 22 crimes punishable with death; the revised version of the Code eliminates the possibility of capital punishment for seven of them:

  • robbery;
  • destroying important national security works or facilities;
  • disobeying orders;
  • surrendering to the enemy;
  • undermining peace and provoking aggressive wars;
  • crimes against mankind; and
  • war crimes. (Revised Penal Code Restricts Death Penalty, Increases Non-Jail Sentences, supra.)

The death penalty could, however, still be imposed for bribery, corruption, and embezzlement. (Id.)

The existing provision on illegally stockpiling, transporting, trafficking in, or appropriating narcotics would be divided into separate articles on the various aspects of the crime; only the provision on trafficking would carry a possible death sentence. (Id.) The current Penal Code makes stockpiling, transporting, or trafficking potentially subject to the death penalty, depending on the quantity of the narcotics involved. (Penal Code, art. 194 (4).)

In addition, under the proposed Code, minors, pregnant women, mothers of children less than three years of age, and persons over 70 years of age (when that age is reached by the time of either the crime or the trial) would not be subject to execution. (Revised Penal Code Restricts Death Penalty, Increases Non-Jail Sentences, supra.)

Crimes That Infringe the Rights of Citizens

The revision would add the three new crimes of infringing the right to vote in referenda; falsifying referenda results; and interfering with free speech, the free press, the right to access information, and the right to demonstrate. These crimes would be punishable upon conviction with either a two-year non-custodial period of “reform” or imprisonment for from three months to two years; those committing these offenses in an organized manner, who abuse their positions to do so, or who cause “serious consequences” could be imprisoned for up to seven years. (Id.) Non-custodial reform periods in general can last from six months to two years. Those subject to this form of punishment will have to perform “special duties” and in most cases will have their incomes reduced by from 5% to 20%, with the balance given to a state fund. (Penal Code, art. 31.)

Heavier penalties than now exist would apply to six other crimes related to citizens’ rights:

  • infringing on others’ residences;
  • infringing on others’ privacy or the safety of their correspondence;
  • illegally forcing laborers, civil servants, or public employees to leave their jobs;
  • infringing on the rights to assembly and association;
  • infringing on freedom of belief and religion; and
  • infringing on the rights to complain and denounce. (Revised Penal Code Restricts Death Penalty, Increases Non-Jail Sentences, supra.)

Penalties Other than Imprisonment

The revised Code would substitute some non-jail penalties for existing terms of imprisonment. For a number of economic management crimes and environmental offenses, as well as for some less serious crimes, fines would be imposed in lieu of imprisonment. Failure to pay such fines within six months could, however, result in the person being sentenced to imprisonment. Non-custodial reform sentences would become applicable to serious crimes committed unintentionally. (Id.)

Reaction to the Proposed Revisions

According to the Chairman of the Justice Committee of the National Assembly, Nguyen Van Hien, most legislators approve of the draft revisions, seeing them as helping with the efforts to reform the judicial system. (Id.) Nuynh Ngoc Son, the Vice-Chairman of the National Assembly, argued, however, that the death penalty should be retained for provoking aggressive war, war crimes, or crimes against humanity, as these are very serious offenses. (Id.) Son also objected to the proposal not to impose the death penalty on criminals over the age of 70, suggesting that many people in that age group are physically and mentally capable of continuing to commit offenses. (NA Standing Committee Debate Revised Penal Code, VIETNAM PICTORIAL (Apr. 7, 2015).)

On the question of retaining capital punishment for corruption, Uong Chu Luu, another Vice Chairman of the National Assembly, suggested that because corruption has been a problem in society and there are efforts in place to fight against it, it is appropriate that the death penalty remain for that crime. (Revised Penal Code Restricts Death Penalty, Increases Non-Jail Sentences, supra.)