A court in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi on Monday sentenced two defendants to death, also handing down a life sentence and other sentences ranging from six years to 15-months’ probation, in the trial of 29 villagers over a deadly land-rights clash in January at the Dong Tam commune.
Brothers Le Dinh Chuc and Le Dinh Cong, both sentenced to death, had been charged with murder in the deaths of three police officers who were killed in the Jan. 9 clash when they were attacked by petrol bombs and fell into a concrete shaft while running between two houses.
Their father, Dong Tam village elder Le Dinh Kinh, 84, was also killed during the early-morning 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.
Le Dinh Cong’s son Le Dinh Doanh was sentenced on Monday to life in prison, while another defendant, Bui Viet Hieu, was given a 16-year prison term and Nguyen Quoc Tien and Nguyen Van Tuyen were handed 12 and 13 year terms respectively.
Others received prison terms of five and six years, and 17 received suspended sentences, with 13 of that group released by the court, sources told RFA’s Vietnamese Service at the end of the trial, which began on Sept. 7 and ended last Thursday, with sentencing postponed till today.
Nguyen Thi Duyen—niece-in-law of village leader Le Dinh Kinh, who was shot and killed by police during the raid—told RFA on Monday that she was not surprised by the outcome of the trial, saying, “I had prepared myself for the worst.”
“Certainly, [the Vietnamese court and police] would have done all they could to ensure that the Dong Tam residents would have to endure long terms in jail,” she said.
‘As I said in court there were four deaths to be accounted for in this case,” added defense attorney Nguyen Van Mieng, also speaking to RFA. “Therefore, the court really needed to investigate and closely check what happened in all of those deaths.”
“There was never enough evidence to charge Le Dinh Cong and Le Dinh Chuc with murder,” Nguyen added.
Calls for witnesses rejected
At the trial, presiding judge Truong Viet Toan had rejected defense requests to summon as witnesses Hanoi chairman Nguyen Duc Chung—now held under detention in an unrelated corruption investigation—and representatives of the Ministry of Defense and Hanoi’s Public Security Department, saying these officials were not relevant to the case.
Slain village elder Le Dinh Kinh’s widow Du Thi Thanh, mother of the two men sentenced to death, was also not allowed to appear as a witness in court, sources close to the trial said.
On Monday, Du filed a petition with senior Vietnamese leaders, including Vietnam’s prime minister and the Minister of Police, denouncing Public Security Ministry spokesman To An Xo, who had referred in a recent statement to Le Dinh Kinh as a “new type of wicked landlord.”
Before he was shot and killed by police, Le had never been prosecuted for any crime and had no criminal record, Du said in her petition, demanding that Vietnamese leaders hold To accountable for slandering her husband’s memory.
Reached for comment on the trial, Hanoi-based dissident activist Nguyen Quang A slammed Monday’s sentences, calling Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party “deaf and blind” to justice. “The Vietnamese government always just imposes its will, resulting in atrocities and inhumane acts against [the country’s] people,” he said.
“The heavy sentences against the Dong Tam defendants, including the death sentence against two persons, come as no surprise,” added Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch in a statement Monday.
“Vietnam’s rulers are bending over backwards to show their toughest possible face against the Dong Tam villagers because they worry this community’s defiance could be contagious unless the defendants are hit with the most severe penalties,” Robertson said.
“With the ruling communist party’s national congress just a few months away, there was never a possibility of anything but a rushed trial through a controlled court that would throw the book at these defendants.”
Carl Thayer, an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia, meanwhile called the Dong Tam raid and resulting trial “a culmination of 40 years of problems with land” in Vietnam.
“Trials in Vietnam are not free and fair as we understand them,” Thayer said. “It’s not rule of law. It’s rule by law. The political decision is: you either put them on trial or you don’t. And if you’re putting them on trial, you’re predetermining [the outcome].”
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 to farming families displaced by development.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Huy Le. Written in English by Richard Finney.