HANOI, Vietnam — An acupuncturist who claims she can detect a man's virginity based on a small dot on the ear has become a minor celebrity in Vietnam, where she is credited with helping to free three convicted rapists from prison.
Traditional medicine practitioner Pham Thi Hong started lobbying for the men's release, pleading their case all the way to the president, because she believes all three men are virgins and therefore could not be guilty of rape.
"They all had small red spots on the back of their ears," said Hong, 54. "The spots should have disappeared if they had had sex. My many years of experience told me that these men did not have sex before."
Her claims are unusual even for a country where acupuncture and traditional medicine are still common remedies, but Hong's determination to have the case reopened – even threatening to light herself on fire – led to prosecutors re-examining the case. The convictions eventually were suspended due to flaws by initial investigators.
"Thanks to her efforts, investigators revisited the case which otherwise could have been buried," said Nong Thi Hong Ha, a lawyer for one of the freed men.
Hong says she discovered the spot on Nguyen Dinh Kien's ear the first time he visited her for treatment four years ago. He was brought to the hospital from prison, where he was serving a 16-year sentence after being convicted of gang raping a 20-year-old woman in 2000.
After seeing the spot on Kien's ear, Hong believed his insistence that he was innocent. She later examined his two alleged accomplices and began a campaign for their release. Eventually, President Nguyen Minh Triet ordered that the case be re-examined.
Investigators who revisited the case discovered flaws, including the fact that testimonies of witnesses indicating their innocence were not included in the case's files, according to the local Pioneer newspaper. The three men, having served 10 years in jail, were released in January.
Vietnamese newspapers have dedicated profiles to Hong and her virginity test, crediting her with helping to free the men while not expressing any skepticism of her ability. Earlier this week, she went on an online chat on Pioneer newspaper where readers expressed their "great admiration" for her efforts.
She says she was first taught how to determine if a man has ever had sex by feeling their pulse. She later developed the ear-spot method on her own. She says the spot will only disappear after heterosexual intercourse and is not affected by gay sex or masturbation.
"I never thought that one day I would use this method to help the three men prove their innocence," said Hong, while treating a patient in her home on the outskirts of Hanoi.
Her virgin-detecting claims have drawn skepticism from other traditional medicine practitioners, who work with needles, herbs and other methods using centuries-old techniques to manipulate energy, or chi, in the body.
"I have never heard of this method before," said Nguyen Van Hao, 60, an acupuncturist who has practiced for 14 years. "From the medical point of view, it's impossible to determine whether a man has had sex or not by feeling the pulse or examining the red spot on their ears."
Hong, however, said she's convinced her method works after years of testing it on her students.
Hong says her reputation has now prompted other convicted rapists to seek her help in appealing their cases.
"I'm not planning to launch a campaign to clear innocent people who were falsely convicted of rape," she said. "But I'm willing to help people to prove their innocence, if they really are."