In a showcase trial last month, a Hanoi court sentenced a high military and Communist Party official to 20 years in jail. His crime: smuggling video recorders, televisions, radios, cameras, and stereo sets through Haiphong harbor.
This ``strict and just punishment,'' stated the Army newspaper, ``is designed for an educational purpose.''
That purpose is a stepped-up campaign to instill the rule of law into a poor and largely peasant Vietnam, dominated up to now by party edicts and a secretive security apparatus.
The campaign began last December at the party's sixth congress, a watershed event in many ways. Reformist Politburo member Nguyen Van Linh was elevated to general secretary, ushering in a fast-paced ``renovation'' in law and economics, a strong echo of reforms in the Soviet Union and China.
Those most likely to have the book thrown at them are local party and government officials, says Justice Minister Phan Hien, many of whom act as ``small kings,'' occasionally violating human rights. One sign of the new campaign was a government report last month that law-enforcement bodies were focusing on 31 ``serious'' cases of stolen public property, speculation, smuggling, bribery, and ``high-handedness.''
In 1986 and the first half of this year, 1,223 economic cases were investigated, and 79 percent of them were tried (and most likely found guilty). Even police brutality is now fair game for public exposure.
Before December, Mr. Hien said, the party and state managed the economy with directives, subsidies, and ``bureaucratic centralism'' (extensive central state planning). These failed to check a rise in so-called negative phenomenon, especially bribery and pilferage of state property.
And now, with more freedom from party rule being granted to economic enterprises, the leaders need to crack down with swift and nonarbitrary law enforcement.
``How can we judge what is right or wrong for the economy if we don't have a system of law?'' Hien asks. ``During the war, the first task of the law system was to fight the war. But reunification of north and south Vietnam brought problems of building a socialist economy.''
A new Constitution in 1980 sparked many laws and directives, notably a Soviet-style criminal code in 1986 and a marriage and family law this year. A new civil code expected next year would tackle such issues as housing disputes and business contracts.
As part of the campaign, the party has tried to upgrade the government's National Assembly. Normally a rubber-stamp body for party edicts, the legislature has been told it must work on more than a dozen bills at its next sitting in December. Last April, voters were given a multiple choice of candidates for each post.
An emphasis on law will not reduce the party's authority, Hien emphasizes. ``If all works well, then the party's role is highlighted even more. But we must first get the rule of law into everyone's mind. People are used to obeying the party. They respect the state, but they listen to the party,'' he said.
``We committed a great mistake by having no law institute before 1976,'' the justice minister said. ``People had the idea that law students only become mandarins for an old-style regime. Lenin was a lawyer, and so is Gorbachev, but we Vietnamese are quite different.''
In a nation of over 60 million people, Vietnam has about 3,000 judges, a majority of whom are party members, while many are poorly trained in law, Hien said. Since 1976, 1,500 lawyers and jurists have been graduated, with 1,500 now in school.
The country has so few lawyers that defendants are sometimes represented by their union leaders. Lawyers earn about the same per case as the price of a bowl of noodles.
Local judges often find it difficult to be independent of local pressures, Hien points out. Ten to 30 percent of court sentences are never served. Until 1983, judges would convict by basing their decision solely on ``revolutionary consciousness.''
Lack of respect for law is caused by the remnants of Asian-style paternalism, says Phan Hanh, chairman of the Vietnamese Lawyers Association. ``Before, party cadre tried to protect each other. There used to be a system that high-level people could avoid punishment, or if they were put on trial, it would be secret. Now, since December, all trials must be public.''
But, says one Western observer of Vietnam, it will take a long time for the law campaign to break a tradition of local warlordism. He cites a popular Vietnamese adage: ``The king's law stops at the village gate.''