The convictions on Friday of four formerly high-ranking Vietnamese Communist Party officials amidst a highly public corruption trial with dozens of defendants has some people questioning the motivations of party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong.
Eighteen days into what has been called the “rescue flight” trial and was expected to last a month, the four ex-officials from the ministries of foreign affairs, health and public security received life sentences. Charged for their involvement in bribery-related schemes, fraud and abuses of power that resulted in a multi-million-dollar scandal within Vietnam’s 2020 Covid-19 response, they avoided the death penalty recommended by prosecutors.
Though none of the 54 total defendants convicted in the trial were sentenced to death, 18 were eligible for capital punishment. Among the wide net of defendants were 10 businesspeople and civilians who received suspended sentences.
The verdict appears to confirm a sensational flare in the “blazing furnace” campaign (chiến dịch đốt lò), an anti-corruption purge spearheaded by party leader Trong. It’s the same campaign that led to President Nguyen Xuan Phuc’s abrupt resignation earlier this year – an unorthodox move in Vietnam, where most political redirections are carefully orchestrated.
This latest trial focused on additional graft allegations from deals made at the height of the country’s pandemic response. Previously, private medical company Viet A Technologies was found guilty of collecting $22 million (about 521 billion VND) in illegal revenue by overcharging for Covid testing kits in collusion with hospital managers and senior officials nationwide.
“I don’t like disciplining my comrades … but I have to do it. As Uncle Ho said, I have to cut off a wormy tree branch to save the whole tree,” Trong said publicly after sentencing in that trial.
In this newest round, a wave of prominent ex-party members, including former Hanoi Deputy Mayor Chu Xuan Dung and Vietnam’s former ambassador to Japan Vu Hong Nam, were found guilty of manipulating the organisation of Covid-era repatriation flights. The stipulations of “combo flights” required citizens who were abroad during the pandemic to make a single payment for plane tickets back to Vietnam and subsequent quarantine fees.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs proposed a total of 772 repatriation flights. To win licensing, air transport providers bribed senior officials to broker 372 combo flights and, presumably, the balance of the 400 other flights.
Hoang Dieu Mo, general director of the An Binh Trading, Tourism and Aviation Services Co., caught wind of this bribery scheme early, according to documents presented by state media. One of the 10 businesspeople caught up in the trial, she received licensing for 66 of the 372 flights, spending nearly $1.5 million (about 35 billion VND) to bribe eight officials from the five ministries involved in the licensing process.
The collusion between airlines, tourism companies and officials to “rip-off” desperate expatriates, students and foreign workers trying to get back to Vietnam during the pandemic caused major public outrage, said Nguyen Khac Giang, a visiting fellow at ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute. Although ticket prices were already exceptionally high, he said, excess demand for the limited seating on repatriation flights resulted in a system of waiting lists.
“Because some people could not be put on the list they had to actually bribe officers in the (Vietnamese) embassies,” said Giang.
The trial that we are witnessing right now is multifaceted – not only purifying the party or cleaning up bad roots.”Nguyen Khac Giang, visiting fellow at ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute
As the case fueled citizens’ outrage, some experts were left asserting the purge and its sensational coverage by state media reflects an attempt by Trong to either ostracise outliers with forced resignations, summary stripping and public trial, or to simply consolidate the party and its image.
“The anti-corruption campaign has many different goals and the trial that we are witnessing right now is multifaceted – not only purifying the party or cleaning up bad roots that the party has been propagating,” said Giang a day before the sentencing. He saw the anti-corruption purge as an opportunity for party members to take out rivals, taking into account that the next party congress is scheduled in less than three years.
Bill Hayton, associate fellow with the Asia-Pacific programme at the policy institute Chatham House, concurred.
“The general secretary is using the campaign to take out his opponents. And I think it’s fair to say that he perceives his opponents as a corrupt class,” said Hayton. “People who are willing to damage the interests of the Communist Party as a whole for their own personal benefit pose a threat to the legitimacy of the Communist Party system because they’re willing to allow individual ambition over party discipline.”
As the public uproar metastasized, the Hanoi People’s Court disclosed during the trial that total bribery money equaled $9.5 million (more than 224 billion VND), of which $2.65 million was given to police officials to avoid prosecution.
Pham Trung Kien, former secretary to the deputy health minister, was found guilty of accepting 253 bribes totaling $1.8 million during an 11-month period. One of the four convicted officials, he received a life sentence for his involvement in the graft scandal.
“I did not ask any firm to be granted a certificate for rescue flights. Instead, they contacted me for help,” he pleaded during the hearing.
During the proceedings, prosecutors said 21 officials and civil servants were charged directly for receiving nearly $7 million in bribes from 100 businesses “to solve administrative procedures for repatriation”.
Thirty-three others faced such charges as enabling bribes, fraud and power abuse, according to the indictment. Some officials such as Dung, who was the most senior in the pool and received 16 years in prison, and Nam, who was sentenced to 30 months, each returned $75,000 to the state as a means to “fix the consequences”, state media reported.
“The system is designed to get people to confess, so that investigators can get people higher up the food chain,” said Hayton.
According to Vietnam’s appellate procedures, the defendants may file an appeal with the immediate superior court within 15 days of the judgement.
“I think some might choose this option, as their sentences are harsher than proposed,” said Giang.