Executions, Extrajudicial

By Don Oberdorfer 

Accompanied by a sudden artillery and mortar barrage and flares casting a metallic glow, two North Vietnamese battalions stormed across lightly defended bridges and lotus-choked moats into the former Vietnamese imperial capital of Hue before dawn on January 31, 1968.

It was part of nearly simultaneous surprise attacks by Communist military forces against nearly every significant city or town in South Vietnam during the lunar new year, or Tet, holiday. The Tet Offensive, as the nationwide attacks would become known, shocked the U.S. government and public into reconsidering and eventually terminating the U.S. military effort in Vietnam.

Hue was occupied for twenty-five days before the North Vietnamese were ousted. During that time, the troops and the political officers who came with them ruled over large parts of the city. One of the central objectives of the occupation, according to a written plan prepared in advance, was to “destroy and disorganize” the administrative machinery that the South Vietnamese regime had established since Vietnam was divided by international agreement in 1954. The effort to root out “enemy” functionaries, according to the plan, was to extend “from the province and district levels to city wards, streets and wharves.” The political officers arrived with a carefully prepared “target list” of 196 places, organized on a block-by-block basis, to be given priority attention, including U.S. and South Vietnamese offices and the homes of the officials who worked there, as well as the homes of those who were deemed to be leading or cooperating with their efforts, including foreigners. Once in charge, the occupation forces set about expanding its target lists with the assistance of local sympathizers.

So many were killed. Le Van Rot, the owner of the most popular Chinese soup restaurant in the city, was the government block chief of his area. Four armed men, two from Hue and two from North Vietnam, came to his shop and arrested him, accusing him of being a spy. They bound his arms behind his back with wire and began to tug him toward the door. When he resisted, one of them put a bullet through his head.

Then there was Pham Van Tuong. He worked part-time as a janitor at the government information office. Four men in black pajamas came to his house, calling on him by name to come out of the bunker where he and his family had taken refuge. But when he did come out, along with his five-year-old son, his three-year-old daughter, and two of his nephews, there was a burst of gunfire. All five were shot to death.

Dr. Horst Gunther Krainick was a German pediatrician and professor of internal medicine who had worked for seven years with teams of Germans and Vietnamese to establish a medical school at Hue University. Krainick stayed in his university apartment after the fall of the city, believing he and his wife would not be harmed. Unknown to them, they were on the original target list. On the fifth day of the occupation, an armed squad arrived and put the Krainicks and two other German doctors into a commandeered Volks-wagen bus. Their bodies were found later in a potato field, all victims of an executioner’s bullets.

The same day, North Vietnamese troops came in force to the Roman Catholic cathedral, where many people had taken refuge from the fighting. Four hundred men were ordered out, some by name and others apparently because they were of military age or prosperous appearance. When the group was assembled, the political officer on the scene told people not to fear; the men were merely being taken away temporarily for political indoctrination. Nineteen months later, three defectors led U.S. soldiers to a creekbed in a double canopy jungle ten miles from Hue where the skulls and bones of those who had been taken away had lain ever since. Those killed included South Vietnamese servicemen, civil servants, students, and ordinary citizens. The skulls revealed they had been shot or brained with blunt instruments.

Altogether, South Vietnamese authorities counted about twenty-eight hundred victims of deliberate slaughter during the Tet Offensive in Hue. The fate of some was known immediately. The bodies of others emerged later from mass graves in nearby jungles or the coastal salt flats. Like those taken from the cathedral, they had been shot to death, bludgeoned, or buried alive.

After Hue was retaken, the South Vietnamese authorities were reported to be guilty of some of the same practices. I learned from a U.S. team that “black teams” of South Vietnamese assassins were sent in to eliminate those who were believed to have aided the enemy during the occupation. On March 14, three weeks after South Vietnam regained control, more than twenty prisoners, including some women and schoolboys, were brought to provincial military headquarters with burlap bags covering their heads and hands tightly wired behind their backs. After being taken into a stone building that was reputed to be a place of execution, all the prisoners disappeared.

It is, of course, unlawful to execute an accused person without giving him a fair trial first. Two bodies of law apply—humanitarian law, which applies in an armed conflict, and human rights law, which applies even where the laws of war do not.

Under international humanitarian law, the sorts of killings that took place in Hue are usually termed “willful killing without judicial process.” If the victims are enemy prisoners of war (including accredited journalists and civilian suppliers and contractors attached to enemy armed forces), or medical or religious personnel attached to the armed services, such executions are grave breaches under the Third Geneva Convention. If they are enemy civilians, it is a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

The requirements for fair trials of military personnel and civilians are similar. Each accused person has rights: against self-incrimination, against being convicted on the basis of an ex post facto law, for being advised of his or her rights, of having the right to counsel, to be told the particulars of the charge, to prepare a defense, to call witnesses, to have an interpreter, and to appeal. “As it is prohibited to kill protected persons during an international armed conflict, so it is prohibited to kill those taking no active part in hostilities which constitute an internal armed conflict,” the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia said in November 1998. The key element is “the death of the victim as a result of the actions of the accused.” Even when it is unclear whether a situation is an armed conflict, human rights law forbids extrajudicial executions.

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