The trial in Vietnam of 29 villagers detained after a deadly land clash near Hanoi opened this week with defense lawyers protesting irregularities in court procedure, objecting to a film shown in court and telling the judge they are being denied the right to meet with their clients during the trial.
The trial opened Monday, with the group facing charges of murder and obstruction for what prosecutors said was their role in the clash over land rights that left three police officers and a protest leader dead in January at the Dong Tam commune outside Hanoi.
Dong Tam village elder Le Dinh Kinh, 84, was shot and killed by police during the early-morning Jan. 9 raid on the village by 3,000 security officers intervening in a long-running dispute over a military airport construction site about 25 miles south of the capital.
At the lunch break on the first day of the 10-day trial, ten defense attorneys filed an application with the chief justice of the People’s Court of Hanoi pointing to what they described as violations of court procedure and demanding the lawyers’ right to meet with their clients during the trial.
A documentary on the Dong Tam clash broadcast by the court also presented the government’s point of view in falsely accusing the defendants of committing crimes, thereby prejudicing their right to a fair trial, defense attorney Dang Dinh Manh told RFA’s Vietnamese Service on Monday.
“I challenged this, because the documentary had been heavily edited and had not been submitted as evidence in the case,” he said.
Video clips were also shown in which defendants appeared to confess their guilt, but which had never been shown to defense attorneys in the case, Dang said, adding, “ According to law, everything that is submitted must be included in the pre-trial profile for the case, and lawyers have the right to learn about them first.”
Forced confessions common
“Use of torture and forced confessions are common in police custody in Vietnam,” Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch said in a Sept. 7 statement, noting that detainees shown confessing on Vietnamese television less than a week after the Dong Tam clash had “many bruises on their faces.”
“There are still many unanswered questions about what happened during the Dong Tam raid that may never be answered in Hanoi’s rush to convict these defendants,” Robertson said. “Quite clearly, the authorities want to hit them with very harsh penalties to warn off others who might dare to challenge state authority in the future.”
To support transparency and fairness in the trial, Vietnam should allow international observers including journalists, diplomats, and nongovernmental organizations to observe proceedings in the court, Robertson said.
Defendants’ relatives and other Dong Tam residents, some of whom had walked the 35 miles from their commune to the court, were meanwhile blocked from attending the trial on Monday, while many activists living in Hanoi were stopped by police from leaving their homes.
“This morning, relatives of the 29 defendants and other villagers arrived at the court in Hanoi, but no one was allowed to go in to observe the trial. Police even forced us to stay away from the courthouse gate,” one Dong Tam resident told RFA on Monday.
“We could only get updates on information about the trial on the television, but these broadcasts were cut and edited incorrectly,” the resident said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation by the authorities.
Closely watched by police
Hanoi-based activist Le Hoang said that police had watched the front of his house all night before the trial, working in shifts, while detained activist Trinh Ba Phuong’s wife Do Thi Thu said that a large number of police dressed in plain clothes had arrived at her house on Monday morning and were “watching me and my parents very closely.”
On Tuesday, a group of six Vietnamese civil society organizations and individuals and over 50 local residents sent a letter to Vietnam’s President Nguyen Phu Trong and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, demanding that authorities protect Bui Viet Hieu, a defendant in the trial, whose testimony in court has contradicted statements by police on the death of Le Dinh Kinh.
Bui should now be transferred to a detention center not under the authority of local police, and the 29 defendants’ trial should be postponed, with Vietnam’s National Assembly sending representatives to oversee the investigation and prosecution of the case, the petition said.
While all land in Vietnam is ultimately held by the state, land confiscations have become a flashpoint as residents accuse the government of pushing small landholders aside in favor of lucrative real estate projects, and of paying too little in compensation.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Huy Le. Written in English by Richard Finney.