Vietnamese Police Pursue Criminal Probe of Dong Tam Villagers in Land Standoff

The move comes despite a promise by Hanoi’s mayor not to prosecute farmers who took police and other officials hostage during a land dispute.

Hanoi Mayor Nguyen Duc Chung (3rd R) is greeted by Vietnamese residents of Dong Tam village, My Duc district, in Hanoi, April 22, 2017.

Vietnamese police on Tuesday began a criminal investigation of farmers in Dong Tam village, despite a promise by Hanoi’s mayor not to prosecute them as a result of hostage-release negotiations during an April standoff between villagers and the local government, sources with knowledge of the situation said on Tuesday.

The investigation is focusing on the illegal detention of 38 police officers and officials and acts of vandalism allegedly committed by farmers after a clash over the government’s seizure of land in Dong Tam village in Hanoi's My Duc district, according to a local media report.

A Dong Tam resident who spoke to RFA’s Vietnamese Service on condition of anonymity said residents of the village in Hanoi’s My Duc district are on edge about what will happen next.

“Now everyone here is waiting for the result [of the decision to prosecute], whatever it might be,” the person said. “Everyone is very nervous and worried.”

Police arrested several farmers from Dong Tam on April 15 for allegedly causing social unrest during a clash between authorities and commune residents who accused the government of seizing 47 hectares (116 acres) of their farmland for the military-run Viettel Group—the country’s largest mobile phone operator—without compensating them.

Other farmers responded by detaining 38 police officers and local officials, and threatened to kill them if security personnel attacked them a second time.

Two days after the clash, police released some of the farmers they had arrested. In return, the farmers freed 15 riot police, but continued to detain 20, while three others escaped.

On April 20, the farmers boycotted a meeting with Hanoi Mayor Nguyen Duc Chung who was ordered to negotiate the release of the 20 police officers and local officials.

He traveled to the My Duc district People’s Committee building about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from central Hanoi to discuss the hostage situation, but the farmers wanted him to visit with them directly in Dong Tam, according to a local media report issued at the time.

The standoff ended on April 22 when the farmers freed the 20 officers and officials after the mayor pledged to investigate their complaints and not prosecute the villagers.

“Currently, the two sides [Dong Tam villagers and the Hanoi government] are still working on the land investigation,” the villager said. “Right now we can’t say anything until it’s clear that Mr. Chung has broken his promise.”

Wait and see

Lawyer Tran Vu Hai, who went to Dong Tam during the standoff to reassure villagers, advised Dong Tam residents not jump to any conclusions about the mayor’s promise not to prosecute the farmers.

“We need to wait to see what they are going to prosecute the farmers for and what Hanoi police will say about this,” he told RFA.

“Right now we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that Mr. Chung has broken his promise," he said. "We need to wait until we are clear about the whole situation.”

“Dong Tam people have told us lawyers to be very careful about this issue right now, and not to find a way to fight the government or to criticize Mr. Chung,” he said.

Land activist Trinh Ba Phuong, who had advised farmers in Dong, said he did not believe Chung would honor his pledge from the start.

“At that time, I predicted that the Dong Tam villagers would face more difficulties, as well as the emptiness of what Mr. Chung said,” he told RFA.

Phuong is the son of activist Can Thi Theu, a resident of Duong Noi village outside Hanoi, known for her work organizing and leading protests against land appropriations.

Authorities have arrested Theu and husband for their protest activities in the past. Theu is currently serving a 20-month prison sentence for causing public disorder a year ago when she and more than 50 other demonstrators gathered at the Ministry of the Environment in Hanoi to submit petitions seeking a solution to an ongoing land conflict in Duong Noi village.

“Mr. Chung was also involved in the arrest of my parents and the Duong Noi people, so this promise of his is of no value to me,” Phuong said.

“Their plan is to prolong [the investigation] time to find loopholes so they can [prosecute] the Dong Tam villagers,” he said.

Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Emily Peyman. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.