HANOI (Reuters) - Abuses by Vietnam's powerful police force are occurring at an alarming rate, a rights group said on Tuesday, and it urged the government to rein in offenders and create agencies to investigate complaints of beatings, torture and killings.
Tracking four years of alleged abuse of suspects in custody, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Vietnam's Communist government needed to recognize the scale of the problem and urgently initiate police reforms.
"What we have uncovered is a human rights crisis in the daily operations of the Vietnam police," Phil Robertson, HRW's deputy Asia director, told a news conference in Bangkok.
"We're convinced that what we're presenting today is the tip of a much larger iceberg," Robertson said, according to a transcript provided by HRW.
The group said many victims of police brutality were accused only of minor crimes like speeding or petty theft. It cited 14 deaths in custody - four unexplained, six alleged suicides and four from illness - and documented 31 cases of police beatings, among whose victims were eight children.
Robertson said the report was far from a quantitative survey and "more a snapshot of a serious situation". The rights group did not interview witnesses or suspects itself for fear it could put them in danger.
It drew largely on what it described as patchy coverage of the issue in by Vietnam's state-controlled media and from bloggers keen to document cases of police brutality.
Reforming the police force could, however, be a tall order in Vietnam. The force is overseen by the Ministry of Public Security, which has a big stake in politics and numerous areas of society and administration.
Several ministers, current and former, are politburo members and the remit of the ministry is far-reaching.
The rights group recommended that the government establish an independent police complaints commission, local-level internal affairs units, a tracking system to address allegations of abuse and ensure interrogations of suspects were videotaped.
Vietnam's government rejected what it said were "false allegations" in the report, citing its signing of the U.N. treaty against torture and inhumane acts as evidence of strong commitment to preventing abuses of suspects in police custody.
"Every act of torture and corporal punishment during investigation and trial processes will be strictly handled in accordance with Vietnamese law," deputy Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Tran Thi Bich, said in a statement.
Minister of Public Security Tran Dai Quang last week said during a hearing of the justice committee of Vietnam's parliament that action was being taken against policemen accused of abuses and cases had risen from 2011 to the end of last year.
Quang said that of the 828 police accused of "infringing upon judicial activities", 23 were charged with using corporal punishment. Quang did not disclose if any had been jailed. Robertson described the hearing as remarkable but said far more needed to be done.
"For now, it's clear that the Vietnam police are mostly getting away with these abuses," he said.
(Reporting by Martin Petty; Editing by Larry King)