The Dong Tam defendants at trial, September 8, 2020. Source: State media via RFA.
On September 7, 29 defendants from Dong Tam faced trial in Hanoi on charges of murder and resisting officials resulting from a violent, early-morning police raid in Dong Tam Commune in January 2020. The raid left a local land rights leader, Le Dinh Kinh, and three police officers dead.
Prior to the start of trial, the Ministry of Information and Propaganda sent directives to all state-run media to paint defendants as “first attackers,” describe Kinh as “a degenerate party member,” stress that “most citizens agree the police had to act to protect the peace,” and not report proceedings from the trial, “especially any defense arguments detrimental to the government’s case.”
At the start of the trial, a “documentary” film produced by police was shown; it depicted the government’s version of events, as well as admissions of guilt by the defendants. When the lawyers objected to this not being factual evidence and that their clients were forced to confess under duress, they were told, “Just watch it.” The lawyers also were denied the opportunity to talk to the defendants during the court recess.
Defendants at trial, Source: Reuters
On the second day of the trial, defendant Bui Thi Noi, foster daughter of Le Dinh Kinh, stood up and directly questioned the prosecution but was quickly led out of the room before she could finish. Defendant Bui Van Hieu, who saw the shooting of Kinh, and who himself was shot at close range but miraculously survived, was not allowed to be a witness for the defense. Before adjournment, attorney Dang Dinh Manh asked all 29 defendants to stand up if they were NOT tortured; only 10 stood up.
On the third day of the trial, the Procuracy recommended the death penalty for two defendants, a life sentence for one, and 16-18 years in prison for three others.
The chief judge then announced that the trial would end before the planned 10 days because all defendants had confessed to their errors, asked for leniency, and requested that their lawyers stop defending them. He denied the lawyers’ request to re-examine key pieces of evidence surrounding the deaths of three police officers and again denied the lawyers’ request to speak with their clients during recess.
On the fourth day, after the prosecution wrapped up, defense lawyers did not get a chance to cross examine and argue their case against the Procuracy as allowed by the law. Their request to see records of the disputed land claims and how Kinh died was refused; so was the request to review “Plan 419A”, the pre-approved plan of attack against Dong Tam, because it was deemed a “national top secret.” Subpoenas for key government witnesses were also denied. The lawyer for the three police officers killed argued “it is not necessary” to try to reconstruct the events that led to his clients’ deaths by burning, even though this was the key event that caused several defendants to be charged with murder.
Defense attorneys on September 10, 2020. Source: Facebook, via Radio Free Asia
The trial was stopped after the fourth day. No one from the defendants’ families was allowed inside the courtroom. Most were prevented from even leaving their homes. At least 10 who made it to Hanoi were detained outside the courthouse. Out of all family members, only the father of one of the three officers killed appeared in court; he was allowed to speak.
After the trial ended, several lawyers were verbally and then physically harassed inside the courthouse when they tried to exercise their legal right to obtain the flash drive containing the trial proceedings. On their way to the airport, their cars were followed by non-uniformed men, but all eventually made it home unharmed.
In a shocking development afterwards, Kinh’s widow made a video plea in which she said she’d be willing to jump into the air vent hole and get burned herself to disprove the murder charges against her sons and grandsons.
The day after the trial ended, defense attorney Le Quyen revealed that on the last day defense lawyers had their shoes searched and could not bring their personal devices into the courtroom; the laptops they were provided by the court did not have internet access; many defendants had a “fearful look in their eyes”, that implied they were “pleading for help”, and some “passed out crying that they were innocent.”
A forged account of a prominent Hanoi lawyer, Pham Thanh Binh, soon appeared on social media and engaged in name calling against the Dong Tam defendants and some of the defense lawyers. Binh denied the account was his and has filed a complaint with the office of cyber security A05.
On September 14, the court announced the verdict. As expected, two of Kinh’s sons—Le Dinh Chuc and Le Dinh Cong, received the death penalty; one of his grandsons—Le Dinh Doanh, received life imprisonment; two other grandsons received five years each. Bui Viet Hieu (born 1943), the eyewitness to Kinh’s murder, received “only” 16 years, as the court deemed him “already too old” to serve a life sentence. See the Appendix for a full list of the sentences.
In an unusual twist, defendant Bui Thi Noi was given a longer prison sentence than was recommended—six years instead of 4-5, possibly for daring to question the judges. Most of the rest were given suspended sentences ranging from 15 months to 3 years and subsequently released. When the defendants got back to Dong Tam, they were greeted by a huge throng of villagers; everyone then went directly to Kinh’s gravesite to light incense and pay their respects.
After the verdicts were announced, state-run newspapers and social network sites continued their attack campaign with similarly-written articles heralding the successful execution of Vietnam’s judicial process, the just sentences handed out to “the dangerous terrorists of Dong Tam,” the leniency that the court had shown for those defendants who “admitted to their errors,” etc.
The defendants’ lawyers, meanwhile, said they would appeal as well as request more information from the investigation in order to prepare for the next stage. It is not clear whether the government will comply with those requests. The lawyers alleged that there were many irregularities in this trial. The lawyer for Bui Viet Hieu also revealed that his client had told him he was “beaten 10 days out of 10 with a rubber baton.” And in a rare act of defiance, Mrs Kinh sued General An Xo, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Security, for libel and defamation for calling her deceased husband “a villainous rich land barron.”
The Dong Tam case has generated a lot of discussions on social media, especially on Facebook in Vietnam, as well as overseas. Not surprisingly, many popular influencer accounts have been harassed by pro-government cyber users. An online group called “Công Dân Hành Động” (Citizens in Action) has started a petition on avaaz.org to protest the verdict; however, their petition page has been flooded by hundreds of bot accounts with extremely obscene user names closely resembling each other.
Lawyers for the defendants have until September 30 to appeal, which we presume all of them will do. After that, the government has 75 days to take up the case. By law, the latest that the appeals trial can take place is sometime between late December of this year and early January of next year, unless the government makes some changes.
© 2020 The 88 Project
Appendix: Sentences of Defendants
- Le Dinh Cong: Death penalty
- Bui Viet Hieu: 16 years in prison
- Nguyen Van Tuyen: 12 years in prison
- Le Dinh Chuc: Death penalty
- Le Dinh Doanh: Life in prison
- Nguyen Quoc Tien: 13 years in prison
- Nguyen Van Quan: five years in prison
- Le Dinh Uy: five years in prison
- Le Dinh Quang: five years in prison
- Bui Thi Noi: six years in prison
- Bui Thi Duc: three years suspended sentence
- Nguyen Thi Set: three years suspended sentence
- Tran Thi La: three years suspended sentence
- Nguyen Thi Lua: three years suspended sentence
- Bui Van Tien: five years in prison
- Nguyen Van Due: three years in prison
- Le Dinh Quan: five years suspended sentence
- Bui Van Nien: three years suspended sentence
- Bui Van Tuan: three years in prison
- Trinh Van Hai: three years in prison
- Nguyen Xuan: three years suspended sentence
- Mai Thi Phan: 30 months suspended sentence
- Dao Thi Kim: 24 months suspended sentence
- Le Thi Loan: 30 months suspended sentence
- Nguyen Van Trung: 18 months suspended sentence
- Le Dinh Hien: 15 months suspended sentence
- Bui Viet Tien: 15 months suspended sentence
- Nguyen Thi Dung: 15 months suspended sentence
- Tran Thi Phuong: 15 months suspended sentence