Family of Vietnam Hoa Hao Buddhist Questions Death in Custody Ruled ‘Suicide’

Authorities in Vietnam’s Vinh Long province on Thursday announced that a Hoa Hao Buddhist follower had committed suicide in police custody, but the man’s family has questioned their account, saying the “evidence” that proves he killed himself is inconclusive.

Vinh Long provincial vice director Pham Van Ngan told reporters that a police investigative unit arrested Nguyen Huu Tan, 38, in Binh Minh township’s Thanh Phuoc commune after searching his home on May 2 for “disseminating anti-state documents,” according to a report by the official Thanh Nien news.

“On the morning of May 3, when an investigator went to talk with Tan [at the Vinh Long detention center] with a monitoring camera in the room, Tan asked for a cigarette and a bottle of water,” the report quoted Ngan as saying.

“As soon as the investigator left the room, Tan went into the investigator’s briefcase, took out a letter opener, and cut his own throat. Within three minutes, the investigator returned to the room, but Tan was in shock due to blood loss and he died shortly after,” he said.

Ngan told reporters that the Vinh Long police allowed Tan’s family to view the CCTV footage of the incident “right after” it occurred and to witness the autopsy on his body, the report said.

“The family understands the cause of Tan’s death to be suicide and that there are no other factors involved,” Ngan said.

Nguyen Hoang Hoc, a spokesman for the Vinh Long People’s Committee, told the same briefing that after news of Tan’s death broke, “many websites ran incorrect reports about the incident,” according to Thanh Nien.

“The authorities have also identified some websites located in foreign countries that called Tan’s family and wrote incorrect details about the case in order to incite the people,” Hoc said.

The report provided no details on what specific documents Tan had been accused of disseminating, or whether anything had been found during the search of his home.

Vietnam’s government officially recognizes the Hoa Hao religion, which has some two million followers across the country, but imposes harsh controls on dissenting Hoa Hao groups that do not follow the state-sanctioned branch.

Rights groups say that authorities routinely harass followers of the unapproved groups, prohibiting public readings of the Hoa Hao founder’s writings and discouraging worshipers from visiting Hoa Hao pagodas.

Account questioned

Tan’s father, a Hoa Hao monk known as Thich Phap Quan, whose secular name is Nguyen Huu Quan, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that the family does not believe he killed himself because of the extent of the injuries he sustained.

“They told me that he cut his own throat and committed suicide, but why was his head injured and how was he able to cut through nearly the entirety of his own neck, leaving only a little bit of flesh connected,” he asked.

“[When we went in to see him] he was on the floor with blood sprayed everywhere. I almost fainted when I saw it. I want to ask the government to investigate this case.”

Quan also told RFA that CCTV video showing the incident, which police have not released to the public, is inconclusive because the picture is unclear, and questioned whether the subject of the footage is actually his son.

“I could not see the face of the person in the video, but he was wearing a prison uniform and my son was never convicted, so he shouldn’t have been wearing that uniform,” Quan said.

I saw the blurred figure of a policeman sitting near him … He went out to get water and the person in the room grabbed a knife on the table. It looked like a letter opener. He started hacking, about three times,” he said.

“I could not see the face, but they said that my son committed suicide. I saw the person fall down, but I never saw the face.”

Deaths in custody

Tan’s death is the latest of several in Vietnam that have occurred under suspicious circumstances while in the custody of the authorities.

In October 2016, 45-year-old Nguyen Cao Tuan died from what was believed to be internal injuries a day after he was questioned by police in Vinh Phuc province over his alleged theft of a mobile phone.

Tuan had returned home with visible injuries to his legs and ankles, and told relatives he had been beaten by the police.

In January the same year, 46-year-old Dang Quang Vinh died at a hospital in Nghe An province after being held for nearly two weeks by police who suspected him of stealing two boxes of bricks.

Vinh was in good health ahead of his detention, according to his family, but an officer who saw him the night before he died described him as being in weak condition and experiencing trouble breathing.

New York-based Human Rights Watch has said that police throughout Vietnam abuse people in their custody, in some cases leading to death, and has urged the country’s government to take action to end the problem.