An unjust murder verdict in Vietnam three decades ago turned an innocent man, who was then a 27-year-old university lecturer, into a prisoner and thus deprived him of his future.
Since he was released following the confession of the real killer, the former lecturer has become a disabled person with his right leg paralyzed and two arms unable to do heavy work.
He had to quit teaching and stay at home to help his wife do a variety of jobs to support the entire family.
This is what happened to a 58-year-old man in Nghe An Province, located in central Vietnam. His story became the plot of a tragedy, “Two Thousand Days of Injustice,” written by a late Vietnamese playwright.
Tuoi Tre journalists found the way to Nghia Binh Town in Nghia Dan District to listen to the story from the victim of the unjust case.
Hearing dog barks from his front yard, the former university lecturer reached up his hands to hold a window bar and follow the wall to drag his legs along to the living room to receive guests.
He is Nguyen Sy Ly, the main character of this true story.
A wrong verdict destroyed Ly’s future
Ly graduated from Hanoi Forestry University in 1980 and was assigned to lecture at Tay Nguyen University, located in the Central Highlands, right after that.
He returned to his hometown, Nghe An, to celebrate the Lunar New Year (Tet) festival with his family in 1983 when a murder case occurred, with local police naming him one of the suspects.
It started on the 28th day of the 12th month in the lunar calendar, or two days before the threshold of the Lunar New Year, and then crumbled his family.
That night, his father Nguyen Sy Huynh brought a large pot for cooking ‘bánh chưng’ (square rice cake), a traditional cake during Tet in Vietnam, to return to his neighbor.
He shone his flashlight on the dark village road and unintentionally swept the light onto the faces of two brothers, Bui Van Vinh and Bui Van Lai, going in the opposite direction.
Lai violently rushed to Huynh, swore at him, kicked away the torch from his hand, and beat him.
Feeling terrified, Huynh ran back home and loudly cried to his three sons, “Help! I was beaten!” Hearing the cries, Ly and his two brothers ran out to help.
Seeing more people from the opposite side, Vinh got panicked and hid himself in a bush while his elder brother Lai threw a grenade toward Huynh’s house and ran away. No one was hurt in the explosion.
When Lai was fleeing away, his brother left the bush to follow him.
On the dark road, Lai heard someone chasing him. He turned back and knifed the man running after him in the chest, thinking that was one of Huynh’s relatives.
Vinh was killed at the hands of his elder sibling.
But Lai denied that he stabbed his brother and shifted the blame to Huynh and his sons.
District policemen came for an investigation into the death the following morning and Huynh and his three sons were detained on suspicion of murder.
Ly told Tuoi Tre that he admitted to committing the crime during police interrogation in order to save his father and brothers from trouble.
“I had no choice but confess the crime I did not perpetrate then,” Ly told Tuoi Tre.
A court sentenced him to 17 years in prison. From that moment, his life made a bitter turn.
“When I was in prison, my wife raised our children. My parents fell ill. My older brother got a sack threat. My younger brother was expelled from the Party. My two younger sisters dropped out of school early,” Ly recalled.
During his time in prison, Ly’s father became a beggar to save money for traveling different places and knocking on many doors to prove his son’s innocence. It was all helpless, though.
After five years in prison, he was eventually proved innocent thanks to the help of his fellow prisoner who finished his term earlier.
Investigation by a former prisoner
The fellow prisoner who helped find justice for Ly is Cao Tien Mui. Mui was nicknamed ‘black bear’ when he was in prison.
Fighting during the war in Vietnam, he was demobilized in 1975 and settled in Nghia Dung Commune in Tan Ky District of Nghe An.
“In 1982, my wife and children starved almost to death as we were too poor so I stole a bag of urea to sell for money and was arrested,” he recalled. “In prison, I met Ly and he told me about his being forced during police interrogation to confess the crime he did not commit.”
Mui promised to Ly that he would seek justice for him.
Shortly after being released from prison, Mui posed as a government official traveling in a car he hired and came to Ly’s hometown to ‘look into’ the old murder case.
Nobody questioned his identity as he was so well-dressed and carrying a bag in a very formal manner at that time.
Mui quickly found out that Lai was the culprit in the murder of his own brother after he used the ‘investigation techniques’ the ex-inmate said he had picked up from his encounters with police.
Looking at Mui, Lai thought the central government tasked him with re-investigating the case so he was afraid that he would be unable to hide his guilt for any longer.
Witnessed by local officials and Mui, Lai finally confessed he stabbed his brother and signed a confession document. Mui gave the document to Huynh, Ly’s father, and reported it to central justice agencies.
In mid-1988, the Supreme People’s Court ruled that Ly was innocent and gave Lai a five-year suspended sentence.
Life after prison
Returning home, Ly could do nothing except simple housework to help his wife. He was allowed to teach at his university again but he was not healthy enough to do this job.
Tay Nguyen University asked the provincial court to take Ly to the school and publicly apologize to him for its miscarriage of justice there.
The court issued an invitation to ask Ly to arrive at its headquarters on July 15, 1990 to travel to the university in the Central Highlands. However, Ly could only receive the invitation paper six days later, on July 21, 1990.
He lodged a complaint to many agencies but it was ignored, Ly said.
Bitterly resenting what had happened to him, Ly then suffered from a stroke and had his right leg paralyzed and two arms too weak to carry anything heavy. Now he has to move on a crutch.
The man and his wife currently raise chickens, make tofu, and sell spring rolls to make ends meet.