In February 2017, the Vietnamese government released figures for the first time in many years. According to these, a total of 429 people were executed and 1134 death sentences were handed down between June 2013 and June 2016. For 2018, 85 executions were publicly announced, placing Vietnam among the top five countries in the world that carry out the most death sentences.

The death penalty in Vietnam has long been considered a state secret, so little information could be provided on the executions carried out and death sentences handed down each year.

Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International had assumed that the number of unreported cases was high, but had estimated it to be much lower. In a global comparison, Vietnam is thus among the three nations that carried out the most executions annually during the periods mentioned.

Crimes punishable by death in Vietnam

The number of crimes punishable by death in Vietnam has steadily declined over the past 20 years: while there were 44 crimes punishable by death in 1999, there were only 22 in 2009. However, another reform of the Criminal Code in 2015 reduced the number again to 18 crimes.

Crimes punishable by death include lethal offenses such as murder, as well as nonlethal crimes such as rape, drug trafficking, endangering national security, and white-collar crimes.

According to the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR), Vietnam is one of the countries with the toughest drug laws in the world. For example, attempted smuggling of 100 g or more of heroin or cocaine or 5 kg of cannabis is punishable by death.

Execution method and procedure

For a long time, the usual execution method in Vietnam was the firing squad. Prisoners were taken to an isolated place late in the evening before their execution, where they were read their sentence again and offered noodle soup and a cigarette.

They were also given the opportunity to write a last letter to their family members. After that, the prisoners were blindfolded and tied to a post. The shooting was done by five police men at a time. The family members of the prisoners involved were not informed in advance, but were only asked to collect the prisoner’s belongings two to three days after the execution.

In 2011, the method of shooting was officially replaced by the injection of poison, as it was found to be the more humane method of execution. By law, this involved the injection of three active ingredients: sodium thiopental (for anesthesia), pancuronium bromide (for paralysis), and potassium chloride (for cardiac arrest). However, the Vietnamese government was unable to obtain the necessary chemicals due to the refusal of European pharmaceutical manufacturers to supply the lethal substances. The procurement problem led to an 18-month pause in executions. However, the Vietnamese government continued to issue death sentences, with over 700 prisoners awaiting execution in 2013.

To solve the problem of procuring drugs, the government amended the law to allow in-house production of lethal substances and their use without prior testing. On August 27, 2013, another execution took place for the first time. By lethal injection, 27-year-old Nguyen Anh Tuan, convicted of murder, was executed. The execution lasted two hours and sparked international outrage.

But despite pressure from the EU and the United Nations, the Vietnamese government refused to declare a moratorium.

Sources and further information:

“The Death Penalty in Vietnam,” report by the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR), published in June 2016;“Death sentences and executions 2018,” Amnesty International annual report, published in April 2019

As of April 2019