A court in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi on Wednesday sentenced 14 officials to between one and a half and six and a half years in prison for abusing their authority to manage land deals in My Duc district’s Dong Tam commune, where a land dispute sparked a rare standoff between farmers and authorities in April.
At the end of a two-day trial, the My Duc District People’s Court sentenced the former officials from the My Duc and Dong Tam governments for “taking advantage of position or power while performing duties” and “irresponsibly causing serious consequences.” Convictions under such charges could have carried a punishment of more than 10 years in prison.
Ten of those sentenced 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.
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.
The heaviest punishment was handed to Nguyen Xuan Truong, a former land and property official for Dong Tam commune, who was deemed to have played a leading role in the land deals. Former president of the Dong Tam People’s Committee Nguyen Van Bot received a suspended sentence of 18 months—the lightest of the group—while most other defendants received terms of 24 or 30 months in jail.
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 Aug. 8-9 trial was unrelated to the Mieu Mon Airport land dispute.
“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,” the resident said at the time, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“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.
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.