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  • Print publication year: 2008
  • Online publication date: July 2009

Chapter 7 - Testing the limits of advocacy: The emergence of public interest law in Vietnam


There was no sympathy among the Vietnamese public for the godfather of Saigon, Truong Nam Cam. Nam Cam, whose name also means “Five Orange” in Vietnamese, was the most feared man in Ho Chi Minh City for over a decade – the chieftain of Saigon's largest organized crime enterprise and a murderer, extortionist, purveyor of forced prostitution and gambling, and corruptor of Vietnamese officials up to the highest levels of the Vietnamese Communist Party and government. Virtually without dissent, Vietnamese believed that the godfather of Saigon should be executed, and they believed that only corrupt protection from senior political officials had enabled him to remain in power so long.

But during Nam Cam's 2003 trial in Saigon, and even after several years of increasingly active defense representation of criminal clients, private lawyers hired by several prominent defendants surprised the court and the prosecution with their energetic and sometimes defiant arguments for their clients. They argued that the prosecution had not proven key elements of its case against both gang members and allegedly corrupted high officials. And they demanded that the traditionally powerful state prosecution service withdraw or reduce some of the charges, or that the traditionally weak court find defendants not guilty, in a trial in which judicial independence had been perceived to have been compromised from the beginning.

Angry prosecutors, unaccustomed to zealous representation in such high profile cases or challenges to their authority, retaliated by threatening criminal sanctions or disbarment against the lawyers.