Two death penalties handed down to drug traffickers on Monday got the country to the 100 mark.

Apart from the sentences, Vietnam has also executed 62 people by the firing squad this year. Most of these have been for murder and drug trafficking.

Human rights groups have been urging the communist nation for several years to abolish the death penalty, but Vietnam has shown no signs of going slow on executions.

"This is a very effective measure," Le The Tiem, deputy minister of public security said in September of the death penalty.

"Once drug-related crimes are eradicated, we might consider changing our policy with lesser penalties."

Apart from murder and drug trafficking, Vietnam has also started handing down the death penalty in graft cases, in an attempt to curb increasing corruption in public life.

In 1999, Vietnam brought down the number of crimes eligible for the death penalty from 44 to 29, but the figures this year show it has not taken any real steps towards joining the abolitionist club.

Legal system

Vietnam's highly politicised legal system has also been faulted by rights groups where defendants are rarely able to choose their lawyers, who in turn have very little access to their clients.

"This is a very effective measure. Once drug-related crimes are eradicated, we might consider changing our policy with lesser penalties"

Le The Tiem
Deputy Minister of Public Security

According to an expert cited by the US State Department, more than 95% of people brought to trial are found guilty.

"Routinely unfair trials in Vietnam mean that the death penalty is imposed under conditions which may lead to irreversible miscarriages of justice," Amnesty International said in August.

Such concerns, however, appear to trouble few people in the country.

"Much of the debate appears to have been over the method used to carry out executions, not over whether they should be happening at all," Human Rights Watch said.

Replacing firing squads

In 1999 Prime Minister Phan Van Khai wanted the firing squad to be replaced by lethal injection, but no action was ultimately taken.

Executions are carried out at special sites at dawn. The victim is blindfolded and tied to a stake.

Spectators are welcome to attend, but the victim's family is rarely informed. They are ordered to come and recover personal belongings, two or three days later.

The body of the executed is only made available to their families for formal funerals three years later.

Diplomatic rows

Western governments have regularly criticised Vietnam for the use of the death penalty and other human rights violations.

The European Union has asked Hanoi "to stop executions for a while and take the time to study whether executions have any effects in the society", a Hanoi-based diplomat said.

Relations between Canada and Vietnam turned frosty when Nguyen Thi Hiep, a Canadian woman of Vietnamese origin, was executed in April 2000 for drug trafficking.

She remains, however, the only Westerner to have been executed since 1975.

In 2002 Le My Linh, a Vietnamese-Australian, was sentenced to death on the same charges, but after intense pressure from Canberra, her punishment was commuted in July to life imprisonment.

Vietnamese criminals, however, are rarely granted such a reprieve.