Thursday, October 21, 2010

A day out

Last week, I received a text message in Vietnamese which said, roughly translated: "Michael oi, do you have free time? I want to spend a day with you before I go away."

The message was from a 16 year old whom I'll call Han. He used to live at the Blue Dragon shelter; at age 14, he'd never been to school before so he lived with us for over a year while he studied and learned basic literacy. But then he moved out to live with his mother again, and sadly he didn't seem interested in either continuing to study or finding a job.

Like teenagers anywhere, having nothing to do inevitably meant that he ended up getting in to trouble - and lots of it.

In January this year, a few months before his 16th birthday, Han was out with a group of friends looking to make some fast money. They robbed a young man on the street, injuring him quite badly, and made off with his cash.

Brash and brazen, but not well planned. They were caught pretty soon afterwards and before long found themselves in court.

Blue Dragon employs 2 Child Rights Advocates - supporting and defending kids in trouble with the law is a major part of what we do. But Han told us nothing of this; it was only after the court case that we found out he'd been in trouble.

The court verdict: 3 years in an adult prison.

I have no doubt that Han deserves a strong punishment. He used a knife in the robbery. He attacked someone on the street. He has no excuse for any of that.

However, the severity of the sentence seemed shocking.

Han and the co-defendants indicated that they would appeal, and so they were not sent immediately to prison; in an act of leniency, the court allowed them to go out on bail until the appeal was heard.

At this point one of our lawyers, a young woman named Hong, became involved, but we held out little hope. Some research and meetings with court officials indicated that the most likely outcome of an appeal would be a 6 month reduction. We were told that Han could try offering compensation to the victim, but the suggested amount was well over what most staff at Blue Dragon earn in a year. Han doesn't have that kind of money, and nor did we think it was morally right for us to pay it on his behalf; it would be like we were helping him avoid punishment. That's not why donors give us money!

So when the court case finally came around, we were expecting the very worst. A sentence to an adult prison for a 16 year boy who looks quite young for his age would be disastrous.

But the result of the appeal: 2 years in reform school!

Now, I have to admit that I'm usually sad to see the kids go to reform school. In Han's case, though, I'm thrilled! Reform school is a much more suitable punishment; it's not going to be an easy ride, but it's more appropriate to his age and he'll still be deprived his freedoms for long enough to think seriously about what he's done.

And then the icing on the cake: Hong asked the court to delay sending Han to reform school in order to allow him to attend his brother's wedding a couple of weeks later. They agreed!

I don't think I should say that there's a happy ending to this story; I will only be able to say that in a couple of years if Han comes out of reform school and has had a genuine change of heart. Here's to hoping.

For now, it was nice to spend some time riding about Hanoi with Han, drinking coffee by the Opera House and visiting another young man, a former gang leader who is opening his own business.

The police will be coming soon to detain Han - he doesn't know when, but the brother's wedding is over so it won't be long now. And in 2 years, or less with good behaviour, he'll be back with a chance to make something of his life.

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