Facing attempted murder charges, a former Vietnamese soldier defended his action to use arms in resisting government eviction from his farm, as his trial opened Tuesday highlighting the growing problem of land grabs under one-party Communist rule.
Scores of his supporters protested outside the Hai Phong People’s Court in northern Vietnam as Doan Van Vuon, 50, took the stand to explain why he and his family had to use land mines and homemade shotguns to repel security forces who came to repossess their fish farm about a year ago.
“This morning, Vuon was the first one to testify at the court. He was very good today. He defended his actions very strongly, so we felt glad,” Pham Thi Hien, the wife of Vuon’s brother and fellow defendant Doan Van Quy, told RFA’s Vietnamese.
“Seeing them and hearing their arguments made us stronger.”
Hien said that day one of the trial, which is scheduled to continue until Friday, had given the family hope that the four men will be exonerated.
Vuon, Quy, their brother Doan Van Sinh, and his son Doan Van Ve have been jailed since they repelled security forces that came to repossess their fish farm in the Hai Phong’s Tien Lang district on Jan. 5 last year. Four policemen and two soldiers suffered serious injuries.
Scores of supporters traveled to the northern port city to protest Vuon’s trial, resulting in several detentions, participants said.
The Associated Press quoted Vuon as telling the court under cross-examination that he had constructed improvised explosive devices and shotguns made from iron pipes to resist the police and army who came to evict them from their houses.
“The eviction decision was illegal. I was pushed into a corner and I had no other way,” he said, adding that the weapons were intended to give police “a warning so they will realize it was dangerous. I didn't intend to hurt the eviction forces.”
State media and some foreign news agencies were allowed to cover the trial on Tuesday from a separate room, where a screen displayed the proceedings. The feed was subject to black out during sensitive moments, AP said.
Before the trial began, Vuon’s family had told the media that they were already planning an appeal to a higher court, suggesting that they had little confidence that the Hai Phong trial would rule in his favor.
Vuon, who served in the army in the 1980s, faces a maximum sentence of death for his charges. His wife Nguyen Thi Thuong, 43, and sister-in-law Hien, 31, are being tried on a charge of protesting during the eviction.
Vuon’s case has been widely reported in the Vietnamese media, and scores of people, including his neighbors, dissidents, and bloggers, showed up outside the court to offer their support for the former soldier-turned-folk hero.
Several of them said they were detained and beaten.
Supporters said that policemen, security guards and plainclothes police had assembled early in the morning near the court and that security around the building was tight.
“There were many policemen—about 10 or 20 times as many as civilians. There were about 30 people here up from about five early this morning,” well-known activist Pham Hong Son said from outside the courtroom.
Two busloads of around 65 evicted farmers heading to the trial from Hanoi’s Duong Noi district and nearby Van Giang district in Hung Yen province were stopped by police at a checkpoint about 30 kilometers (19 miles) away from Hai Phong and not permitted to leave, group members told RFA.
“Nobody could get close to the court. Everybody had to stand at a crossroad about 100 meters (330 yards) away. Police cordoned the area off, blocking people,” said Son, who was among dissidents and bloggers who had traveled to the court to protest Vuon’s trial.
“There was a moment when the situation became very tense. They almost arrested me, but after an argument they let me go.”
A blogger named Hoang Vi told RFA that some protesters had held banners calling for justice for Vuon.
Hoang Vi said that police arrested blogger Truong Van Dung, as well as prominent activists Bui Thi Minh Hang and Nguyen Chi Duc. All three were taken away in a vehicle “with other unidentified people,” he said.
Blogger Dung later told RFA after his release from the Hai An district police station in Hai Phong that he had been taken away and beaten.
“I saw them arrest one young man and brutally beat him. I protested, so they arrested and beat me too,” he said.
“They forced me into a van used for prisoners. They handcuffed me and beat me so that I could not resist.”
Dung said he was beaten the worst out of the group that was detained by authorities and had to go to the hospital for medical attention.
“Most of my injuries are external,” he said, “but the doctor was unable to predict any complications that may occur later.”
Bui Thi Minh Hang posted on her Facebook account that she had also been released late on Tuesday, but it was unclear whether others who had been detained outside the courthouse were later released.
The case of Vuon and his family defending their farm has highlighted the plight of people grappling with forced government land takeovers in Vietnam.
Authorities were stunned by the resistance put up by Vuon and had sent reinforcements comprising about 100 police officers and soldiers wearing bulletproof vests and riot gear to repossess the 19-hectare (47-acre) leased swampland which he had converted into a seafood farm.
Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung had initially called the repossession and forced eviction “illegal” and asked officials to expedite Vuon's trial and reduce the charges against him.
Dung also warned officials to ensure that evictions and land seizures are carried out "in strict accordance with the law."
Two members of the local authorities were suspended a month after the incident for their role in the eviction.
Reported by Mac Lam and Thanh Truc for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.