A court in northern Vietnam’s Bac Ninh province sentenced a local activist to 30 months in jail on Tuesday for “causing public disorder” at a toll-booth set up under Vietnam’s controversial Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) scheme, which has drawn protests around the country, sources said.
Ha Van Nam had gone to the Pha Lai toll station on Vietnam's Hwy. 18 with a large crowd on Dec. 29 to block traffic, causing losses of revenue to the station when station managers let vehicles pass through free of charge to relieve congestion, the court said.
Also sentenced by the court were Nguyen Quynh Phong, Le Van Khiem, Nguyen Tuan Quan, Vu Van Ha, Ngo Quang Hung, and Tran Quang Hai, who drew jail terms of from 18 to 36 months on the same charge.
Speaking to RFA’s Vietnamese Service, Nam’s lawyer Ha Huy Son said his client was innocent of the charge made against him, saying Nam had gone to the toll station with a crowd of around a hundred only to assert the rights of local residents who were forced to use the road.
“His purpose was not to cause a traffic jam,” Son said, adding that Nam had been wrongly accused of inciting drivers to halt their cars on the road, and that the actions of BOT staff and the drivers themselves had blocked the lanes.
After station manager Mac Tuan Long came out to speak to the protesters, toll-booth operators finally opened the gates to allow cars and trucks to pass through without paying, causing losses to the station of around VND 23 million (U.S. $992), sources said.
Defendants were ordered by the court to pay the losses back, sources said.
Barred from the court
Friends and supporters of Nam and the other protesters were barred from their trial at the People’s Committee of Dao Vien Commune in Bac Ninh’s Que Vo district on Tuesday by police who lined up outside the court, one woman told RFA.
“We were all standing outside, where we were monitored by the police,” Dang Thi Hue, who had joined Nam in his protest at the toll station, said. “I tried to talk to them and ask them questions, but they just kept silent or said that they were only following orders.”
“My own opinion is that [the protesters] are all innocent. But if the court declares them guilty, all they can do is accept their sentence. They have all been wrongfully convicted,” she said.
Vietnamese citizens have long suspected station operators of falsifying collection records at BOT projects across the country, with citizen volunteers sometimes camping out near toll booths to count the cars passing through.
Under the BOT model, investors transfer their projects to state ownership after building and operating them for a certain period of time.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Channhu Hoang. Written in English by Richard Finney.