|Nguyen Than (right) cries as he talks about the long fight to prove innocence of his former student, Huynh Van Nen (left), who was wrongfully convicted on a murder charge and served 18 years in jail. — VNS Photo Bo Xuan Hiep
by Bo Xuan Hiep
HCM CITY — Huynh Van Nen will never forget the day he was released from prison last year.
For 18 years, his children had to grow up without his love and live in less than desirable conditions as they eventually had to be sent to a foster home in HCM City.
During Nen's prison stay, his mother passed away, while his 90-year-old father had many sleepless nights.
When Nen stepped out of prison on November 28, the first thing he did was to hug Nguyen Than, his former primary school teacher.
"Thank you so much, my teacher. I feel as if I've been born again," Nen told Than, 60, who had fought for years to prove Nen's innocence.
"I owe my life to you," said Nen, now 53.
Than is a former chairman of Ham Tan District's Tan Minh Commune in the central province of Binh Thuan.
Many people, including family members, friends, reporters and lawyers, are relieved that Nen is now free.
But only a few of them know all the details about the battle Than waged for years on behalf of Nen.
Nen was first arrested in May 1998 as the main suspect in the murder of Le Thi Bong in Tan Minh Commune in Ham Tan District.
Police in Binh Thuan Province said that Nen confessed that he stole property from the woman during the crime.
The police said that Nen told them, under interrogation, that he and nine of his wife's family members had also been involved in the murder of another woman, Duong Thi My, in 1993.
However, Nen later said during his court trial that he was innocent and that the police had beaten him and had forced him to confess.
Despite this, the Binh Thuan Province's People's Court found Nen guilty of murdering Bong, based on his earlier confession, and sentenced him to life in prison.
In April 2005, after several trials about the murder which had occurred in 1993, the court declared that Nen and eight of the nine relatives were innocent of the charge. (One of the nine relatives had died by that time.)
All eight of the relatives received public apologies and were compensated.
However, Nen had to continue serving the life sentence for the other murder that had occurred in 1998.
Police then closed the investigation of the 1993 murder case.
After Nen was sent to prison, a local commune resident, Nguyen Phuc Thanh, who was serving time in Song Cai Prison in the central province of Phu Yen, wrote a letter to his mother, Lua, informing her that two of his friends, Nguyen Tho and Ho Van Viet, had murdered Bong, and that Nen had not been involved.
Nguyen Than was voted by readers of online newspaper Infonet as Person of the Year" in 2015. A ceremony held last month in HCM City honoured his contribution in proving the innocence of Huynh Van Nen. — VNS Photo Bo Xuân Hiep
In 2000, Lua gave the letter to Than, who spoke about the incident in a recent interview in HCM City.
At that time, Than said he was reading documents at home for an official meeting when he heard a knock on the door.
It was Lua, who lived in the same commune.
"I thought she badly needed help, so I decided to talk to her even though it was late at night," he said.
The letter written by her son urged him to prove the innocence of Nen.
Than said that after reading the letter, he could not ignore the case of his former student.
As the then-commune chairman, he began to speak to many lawyers and officials, from the lowest district level to the highest in the land, demanding that the case be reopened.
But he faced harsh criticism from his superiors as the murder case was considered a "sensitive issue" that could affect the reputation of the local police and the court.
Than then asked Huynh Van Truyen, Nen's father, to meet with lawyers and members of the media to seek help.
Many lawyers and reporters, who were impressed with Than's knowledge of the case and his affection for his former student, agreed to offer free legal consultancy and to write stories about the case.
The reporters and lawyers sent requests to agencies at the central government level to reopen the case. But all of the requests were denied.
In 2007, Than asked Nen's father and another family member to travel to Ha Noi to a government office to demand that the case be reopened. Still, nothing happened.
Trust in justice
When asked if he ever wanted to give up, Than said: "Sometimes I felt really disappointed and frustrated and wanted to give up because I received no feedback. And my health worsened due to heart disease and my difficult financial condition."
"Near the end of 2013, I read a news story about Nguyen Thanh Chan, a man who was declared innocent after serving more than 10 years in prison because of a wrongful murder conviction," he recalled.
It was only when Nen's father travelled from the southernmost province of Ca Mau to Binh Thuan Province, asking for Than's help that he "felt much more motivated and determined."
Again, Than took another trip to Ha Noi with Nen's family members, asking the People's Supreme Court and People's Supreme Procuracy to reopen the case.
Within a few months, the People's Supreme Procuracy sent a group of officials to work on the case.
As a result of their findings, they asked the investigation police of Binh Thuan Province to reopen the case, after which the Supreme People's Court, hearing the case again, found Nen innocent.
Nen was then released from prison on bail and received medical treatment for his eyes in October last year.
On November 28, the authorities in Binh Thuan Province suspended all investigations into Nen's case.
Shortly thereafter, on December 2, the police of Binh Thuan Province announced that the 1998 murder in Ham Tan District had been committed by two people. The person had been murdered by strangulation.
Police said that Nguyen Tho of the province had confessed that he committed the crime under interrogation by police. The other person who allegedly was involved had died, police said.
The province's judicial agencies organised a public apology ceremony on December 3 for Nen, and promised to pay him compensation.
Last year, readers of online newspaper Infonet voted Nguyen Than as "Person of the Year" in 2015.
Vo Dang Thien, Infonet's editor-in-chief, said: "Than is a normal man, but he did an extraordinary thing."
"The award recognises Than's relentless contribution to proving the innocence of Nen as well as his kindness, which has become rare in our fast-moving society," he added.
Thien said he hoped that Than's story would continue to inspire people to be kind and commit selfless acts.
At the ceremony held in HCM City to receive the award on January 15, Than said: "I'm really happy and moved to receive the award. But I believe what I did was normal."
"I did it because I am a former teacher, former commune chairman and a Communist Party member," he added.
"I hope Nen's life will become better soon. What makes me happiest is that we found justice, though it was late," Than said. "I hope there will never be another wrongful case like this." — VNS