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Vietnam tries former oil executives for corruption

Тринх Сюань Тхан на суде
Trinh Xuan Thanh appears in court in Hanoi, Vietnam, January 8. Source: AP.

This material belongs to: Borneo Bulletin.

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Vietnam opened a major corruption trial yesterday against defendants who include a former senior Communist official and a former oil executive the Vietnamese government is accused of snatching from Germany.

Former Politburo member Dinh La Thang, 57, also was formerly the chairman of state energy giant PetroVietnam and is accused of “deliberately violating state economic management regulations, causing serious consequences” for his role in awarding PetroVietnam’s Construction Joint Stock Company, or PVC, a contract to build a thermoelectric plant without a proper bidding process.

He allegedly also advanced $67 million to PVC, which did not use the funds for the right purpose, causing losses of $5.5 million to the state.

Thang, the first former Poltiburo member to face prosecution in decades, faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

Trinh Xuan Thanh, 51, a former chairman of PVC, is accused of the same charge as well as embezzling $186,000 from another thermoelectric plant. The embezzlement offense carries the death penalty.

In August, Germany accused the Vietnamese intelligence service of kidnapping Thanh from a Berlin park. Vietnam denied that, saying Thanh turned himself in to police voluntarily, but the incident strained bilateral ties and Germany expelled two Vietnamese diplomats.

The trial yesterday involves the two men and 20 other defendants who are mostly current or former senior oil executives, including three other former chairmen of PetroVietnam.

PetroVietnam and the banking sector have been at the centre of an unprecedented crackdown on corruption under the watch of the Communist Party’s General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, who was re-elected to another five-year term in early 2016 at the party congress.

The trial of Thang and Thanh “sends out a stern warning that there will be no ‘no-go zones’ in this campaign, and corrupt officials, no matter who they are and what position they hold, will be brought to justice,” said Le Hong Hiep, a research fellow at the Singapore-based ISEASYusof Ishak Institute.

“The campaign has some aspects of political infighting, but the main driver is still the Party’s wish to stem widespread corruption, which has undermined the people’s confidence in the Party’s governance capabilities as well as its economic reform efforts,” Hiep said.

He said political power had previously been fragmented and the fight against corruption inefficient, but Vietnam’s political power structure was now concentrated in favour of the general secretary position. The corruption crackdown was intensifying now because Trong and his allies were able to consolidate power after the party congress, Hiep said.

Once a rising political star, Thang was dismissed from the all-powerful Politburo in May and was subsequently fired as secretary of the southern commercial hub of Ho Chi Minh City.

He was arrested on December 8 while his brother Dinh Manh Thang was detained one day later for alleged embezzlement in another corruption case. Hiep said the trial of Thanh will continue to have a chilling effect on relations between Vietnam and Germany and may affect the free trade agreement between Vietnam and the European Union.

“The EUVFTA may be delayed, but I believe it will eventually be ratified by the EU, especially if the trial of Thanh is seen as transparent and fair. In the end, economic considerations may outweigh political ones in this case,” he said.

Security around the courthouse in central Hanoi was tight.

“I’m happy that the government is getting tough on corruption with the trial of Thang, a former Politburo member,” said Ngo Quang Hung, 62, a retiree, who was among few dozen people gathered outside the courthouse. “But the anti-corruption crackdown will not be a successful one if corrupt money is not retrieved back to the state.”

The trial in which foreign media is not allowed to attend is expected to last two weeks.

Vietnam ranks 113 out of 176 countries in Transparency International’s 2016 corruption index.

Бывший глава ПетроВьетнам Phung Dinh Thuc
FILE PHOTO: PetroVietnam’s former chairman Phung Dinh Thuc walks out of a court for lunch, in Hanoi, Vietnam January 8, 2018. Source: REUTERS/Kham/File Photo Reuters.

At Vietnam’s Biggest Corruption Trial, Some Skeptical Views

This material belongs to: US News.

By Mi Nguyen and Alex Dobuzinskis

HANOI/LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Vietnam is gripped by its highest profile corruption trial in memory, but some spectators are questioning whether the Communist Party elite in the dock were charged because of infighting in the ruling class or a crackdown on abuse of office.

Onlookers have gathered at the Hanoi People’s Court since Monday for a glimpse of Dinh La Thang, the first politburo member to be arrested in decades, and Trinh Xuan Thanh, a state oil firm executive who Germany says was kidnapped from Berlin by Vietnamese agents.

Led to the court in handcuffs along with 20 other defendants, their simple clothes and rough haircuts contrasted with their former well-groomed images as scions of the establishment.

They face charges related to losses of hundreds of millions of dollars at state oil giant PetroVietnam. Reuters was unable to contact either the defendants or the lawyers representing them for comment.

“This trial has raised a voice against corruption, but is not effective enough,” said Vu Van Thuong, a 60-year-old retired businessman who was among those outside the court. “Even if embezzled properties are returned, if policies don’t change, then this country will remain poor.”

Similar sentiments were expressed by a Facebook user called Quyet Le Quoc, who wrote: “Who believes this is a corruption crackdown?”

“Almost everyone knows that two sides are fighting for power,” the writer said, adding that the accused deserved to be put on trial.

The government says the accused are being tried for mismanagement, embezzlement or both.

On the first day of the trial, curious crowds began gathering around the courtroom before dawn and had to be kept back by police. The only reporters allowed inside the courtroom are from state-linked organizations and news about the trial tops bulletins on the strictly-controlled government media.

Vietnam’s fight against corruption intensified last year after the security establishment gained greater sway under 73 year-old Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong.

Scores of officials and executives have been arrested, most of them from PetroVietnam and the banking sector in the Communist-ruled country of over 90 million people.

The PetroVietnam trial is taking place at the same time as a separate trial in the commercial capital Ho Chi Minh City, where a fraud case involving Vietnam’s Construction Bank is being heard.

Winners and Losers

Many of the most prominent figures at the trial in Hanoi were aligned with former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who lost out to Trong in a 2016 power struggle.

While Dung was noted for the high profile ties of his family and lieutenants to big business in one of Southeast Asia’s most dynamic economies, Trong is a party stalwart with a much more modest personal reputation.

Among the Vietnamese diaspora, details of the trial are being lapped up – particularly in the United States, home to an estimated 1.3 million Vietnamese immigrants.

In Vietnamese-American communities in the United States, such as Little Saigon in Orange County, California, many residents fled as refugees during or soon after the U.S. war in Vietnam ended in 1975 – bringing with them an enduring hatred of communism.

Few saw the trial as being the start of real change, to end corruption in a country that ranked 113 of 176 countries on Transparency International’s most recent index of corruption perceptions. But there was scant sign of sympathy for those in the dock.

“Political observers within the community see this as basically Mafia members, Communist Mafia members, using their own legal system and their kangaroo courts to whack each other,” said Van Tran, a former Republican member of the California legislature.

Vietnamese-language papers and radio stations in hubs such as Westminster, California, and Houston, Texas, are following the trial and have an avid audience.

“Fighting corruption is meaningless when you don’t have a checks and balance system,” said Tuyet Ngoc Dinh, who came to the United States as a teenager in 1989 and lives in Louisville, Kentucky.

Longstanding anti-communists saw signs of internal division in the trials – signs welcomed by Huu Vo, 67, president of the Federation of Vietnamese American Communities of USA and a resident of Pomona, California.

“When there’s a power struggle, they grow weaker,” he said.