A court in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi is set to try more than a dozen officials accused of abusing their authority to manage land deals in My Duc district’s Dong Tam commune, state media reported Monday, where a property dispute sparked a rare standoff between farmers and authorities in April.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, the My Duc District People’s Court will hear the cases against 14 former officials from the My Duc and Dong Tam governments charged with “taking advantage of position or power while performing duties” and “irresponsibly causing serious consequences,” according to a report by the official Vietnam.net. A conviction for such charges could result in more than 10 years in prison.
According to the indictment, 10 of those accused are former cadres of the Dong Tam commune People's Committee, and four are former officials from the Department of Natural Resources and Environment and the Office of Land Registration of My Duc district, the report said.
Between 2002 and 2013, some of the defendants abused state management of land and allocated parcels to 29 households in Dong Tam commune in return for billions of dong (1 billion dong = U.S. $44,000) in profit, while those with the Department of Natural Resources signed documents related to the land without verifying its ownership.
Farmers in Dong Tam say the government is seizing 47 hectares (116 acres) of their farmland for the military-run Viettel Group—the country’s largest mobile phone operator—without adequately compensating them.
At the end of a week-long standoff in April, during which farmers detained dozens of police officers and officials, Hanoi’s mayor pledged not to prosecute residents and to investigate their claims in the land dispute regarding the boundaries of Dong Tam’s Mieu Mon Airport.
But on July 25, the Hanoi Inspectorate announced that after conducting a “comprehensive inspection on the management, use, and handling of the land area,” it had determined that the military administers all airport land, which it said encompasses 236.7 hectares (584.9 acres).
On Monday, a resident of Dong Tam told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that the court hearings scheduled for Aug. 8 and 9 are unrelated to the Mieu Mon Airport land dispute.
“The people of Dong Tam are not invited to join the court proceedings [because] these [defendants] didn’t do anything related to the disputed land of Mieu Mon Airport,” said the resident, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said that for the land dispute in Dong Tam, the authorities need to be handled first and the residents later. But, obviously, these people are not related to that dispute. They are charged with violations in the management of land from 2002-2013 in a [nearby] area called Rang Truc.”
After the announcement of by the Hanoi Inspectorate in July, the residents of Dong Tam submitted a complaint to the central government over the decision, but have yet to receive a response.
Severity of sentence
Lawyer Nguyen Kha Thanh, a member of a legal group in central Vietnam’s Phu Yen province, told RFA that the severity of the sentences facing the 14 defendants “depends on how much money they took.”
“The sentence [for these charges] can be up to more than 10 years in prison, but in cases like this, only some people will be put in prison, while most will receive a suspended punishment,” Thanh said.
“There are many details in the case that they can use to have their sentence reduced—for example, if they’re a government official, they can leverage their contribution to the state, or say they don’t have any criminal records, or that they are from a family that has made great contributions to the country.”
Thanh added that a few of the defendants could be handed tougher sentences to set an example for other officials.
Hanoi-based lawyer Ha Huy Son told RFA that the defendants are likely to receive leniency because of their political position.
“Officials with powers get priority—that’s why they usually get lighter sentences than normal people,” he said.
Both lawyers told RFA that, if convicted, the court would require the defendants to return the money they earned through their abuse of management, according to Vietnamese law.
Police arrested several farmers from Dong Tam on April 15 for allegedly causing social unrest during a clash between authorities and commune residents over the airport land.
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.
In June, police opened a criminal investigation into the farmers of Dong Tam, despite Chung’s promise, focusing on the illegal detention of the 38 police officers and officials and acts of vandalism allegedly committed during the clash.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Emily Peyman. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.