2 death sentences given to land dispute protestors in VietnamPublished: Sep 18, 2020 Reading time: 7 minutes
In the aftermath of a deadly clash between security forces and Dong Tam villagers, the court of Hanoi on September 14, 2020 sentenced two protestors from Dong Tam to death. A further 27 villagers received sentences ranging from 15 months to life imprisonment. The trail was marked by unfairness, violence and undue restrictions. People in Need urges Vietnam to squash the convictions of all sentenced Dong Tam villagers and prompt a thorough and impartial reinvestigation of all alleged crimes.
A bloody raid
The trial of 29 villagers occurred nine months after a land grab raid early on January 9, 2020 on Dong Tam, a small village near the capital Hanoi and a hot spot in an enduring land dispute. Prior to the raid, Dong Tam villagers had for several years been resisting attempts by the military to build an airfield on their land. They also claimed that an area of approximately 50 hectares of their land had been unfairly taken over and handed to Viettel Group, Vietnam's military-run communications company.
Such resistance included the villagers holding 38 officials hostage in 2017 in retaliation for the arrest of four Dong Tam villagers who protested against acquisition of the land for “disturbing public order”. All hostages were eventually released after the authorities, led by former Hanoi Mayor Nguyen Duc Chung, agreed some concessions, including a prompt investigation into the land dispute. No practical improvement in the negotiation between Dong Tam and Hanoi had been observed as Dong Tam’s discontent with the authorities grew.
The dispute led to an armed raid in which an 84-year-old man with a disability was killed: Le Dinh Kinh, the spiritual leader of Dong Tam’s land movement. At the time of his death he was still a member of the Vietnamese Communist Party. According to official reports, three police officers were also killed, allegedly by villagers who were then swiftly arrested.
Struck by the incident’s overwhelming ambiguity, international human rights groups called for an independent investigation into the clash and the deaths of Le Dinh Kinh and the police officers. Such requests were not answered. In contrast, the deceased police officers were posthumously awarded the Feat of Arms Order and certificates citing their “great contribution to the nation” for their role in the attack on the commune. Le Dinh Kinh, as well as the arrested villagers, were conveniently depicted by state media as “terrorists” (even though no charges of terrorism were brought against the defendants at their trial). Footage of the arrested villagers confessing their guilt was circulated widely on state media, while revealing apparent signs of their torture. These include videos of Le Dinh Cong (later sentenced to death), Le Dinh Quang (sentenced to five years in prison) and Bui Thi Noi (sentenced to six years in prison).
A bank account dedicated to collecting financial support for Le Dinh Kinh’s family and owned by Nguyen Thuy Hanh, a prominent pro-democracy activist, was frozen by the authorities arbitrarily, who cited “terrorist prevention.”
In a likely connection, prominent land rights activists Trinh Ba Phuong, Trinh Ba Tu, Can Thi Theu and Nguyen Thi Tam, who played active roles in covering the raid by physically approaching the raided locations and victims, were arrested in June 2020 for “anti-state propaganda” in violation of Article 117 of the Penal Code.
A speedy trial
Among the 29 Dong Tam villagers, six were charged with murder and 23 with resisting on-duty officers. The five-day trial (originally 10-day) concluded with two death sentences. The other 27 people on trial were given sentences ranging from life imprisonment to 15 months suspended.
From the very first day of the trial, independent observers slammed the process for violating fair trial standards. Though all 29 defendants pleaded guilty, there were numerous indicators of a rigged trial.
The trial was not open to the public. Neither the defendants’ relatives nor independent observers were allowed in court. Information about court proceedings thus came either from state-run media or the defendants’ attorneys.
At the opening of the trial, the court showed, as evidence, doctored videos of the raid and footage of the defendants’ confession of guilt, which had previously been widely publicized on state TV. This violated the principle of presumed innocence for the defendants.
The defendants’ attorneys were barred from direct contact with their clients at the trial. The trial’s chairman, judge Truong Viet Toan, announced publicly in the courtroom that there was “no need” for the defendants and their attorneys to have any contact in court during the trial. According to the same judge, there was also “no need” for the attorneys to receive copies of the videos used as evidence against the defendants. In the same manner, lawyer Nguyen Hong Bach, who represented the three deceased police officers, also rejected the attorneys’ demands to publicize Plan 419A of the Hanoi City Police regarding the maintenance of order and security surrounding Dong Tam, calling it a “classified document.” Breaching of the Plan 419A, however, was the basis for the convictions of the other 23 villagers who were charged with resisting on-duty officers.
Despite a worrying number of uncertainties regarding the officers’ deaths, the court and lawyer Nguyen Hong Bach opposed a forensic reassessment of the crime scene, arguing that doing so would only bring pain to the deceased officers’ families.
Concerns about torture in detention of 29 arrested Dong Tam villagers became even more valid during the trial. According to his attorney Dang Dinh Manh, in court Le Dinh Cong said police had beaten him with rubber-wrapped batons “every day for 10 days” during interrogations. Dang Dinh Manh also said that when asked by their attorneys to raise their hands if they had NOT been tortured during interrogation, 10 out of 29 defendants raised their hands. That implies at least 19 defendants suffered torture in their detentions.
As the only source of information about the court proceedings other than state media, the defendants’ lawyers were subjected to harassment and intimidation apparently supported by the police. According to lawyer Dang Dinh Manh, after the fourth day of the trial, three of the defendants’ lawyers were forcibly dragged to the court’s gate and shoved down the stairs by plainclothes police after some regular police officers attempted to confiscate a USB drive from the lawyers.
Against this backdrop of apparent violations of international human rights standards for a fair trial, People in Need urges the People’s Supreme Court of Hanoi, the Hanoi Police, and the Ministry of Public Security of Vietnam to:
- Squash the convictions of all sentenced Dong Tam villagers, most urgently individuals with heavy sentences (among others, Le Dinh Cong, Le Dinh Chuc – death penalty; Le Dinh Doanh – life sentence; Bui Viet Hieu – 16 years)
- Issue a request for a forensic reassessment and reinvestigation of all alleged crimes with a thorough and independent observation by civil society, media and human rights groups. This should include a thorough and transparent investigation into the alleged use of torture against the defendants during interrogations
- Ensure lawyers for the defendants have access to their clients and documents related to the alleged crimes without restrictions
- Immediately stop all forms of harassment and intimidation of the accused villagers’ families, as well as activists who followed the case. This includes an immediate and unconditional release of activists and Dong Tam supporters Can Thi Theu, Trinh Ba Phuong, Trinh Ba Tu and Nguyen Thi Tam