"This morning, the national assembly approved some amendments to the criminal code," an official from the National Assembly office told AFP.

He said that, in addition to rape, deputies voted to remove six other offences from the list: awarding of bribes, counterfeiting of money and bonds, hijacking ships and planes, destruction of weapons and military equipment, and appropriation of property through swindling.

Seventy-five percent of deputies in the communist-dominated National Assembly endorsed the amendments to the penal code, which take effect January 1 next year, state media reported.

The amendments were controversial, with lively debate particularly about rape and drug trafficking, according to local media reports of the proceedings, which were closed to foreign reporters.

A draft amendment presented to the deputies had proposed removing eight crimes from the list, including drug trafficking, but as their month-long sitting closed on Friday deputies rejected the move.

Global human rights group Amnesty International said it "very much" welcomed the reduction in the number of capital offences.

"And we hope that this is the first concrete step in a move towards abolition, which the highest levels of the Vietnam government have indicated support for," and which is a worldwide trend, Amnesty's Janice Beanland said from London.

She said Amnesty was disappointed that drug offences were excluded from the changes, despite a recommendation from Vietnam's Ministry of Justice, but was encouraged by the National Assembly's debate of the issue.

More than 90 percent of National Assembly deputies are Communist Party members but the parliament has in recent years become more vocal over the country's major problems.

"I think the National Assembly is doing a good job in not being seen as a rubber stamp... It's a start," an Asian diplomat said before the voting.

Vietnam last reduced the number of death penalty crimes in 1999, but even with the latest amendments the country still has 22 crimes on its statutes that are punishable by death.

Dozens of people each year in Vietnam are sentenced to die by firing squad, mostly for murder and drug trafficking.

Agence France Presse - June 18, 2009