Vietnam News

Vietnam jails 50 in mass bribery trial over Covid-19 flights

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A court in Vietnam has jailed 54 people, including several high-ranking officials and a former minister, in one of the country’s largest ever bribery and corruption cases.

Judges said the accused had extorted money from people taking repatriation flights during the Covid-19 pandemic.

One former minister was sentenced to 16 years in prison for receiving over $900,000 (£700,000) in bribes.

The court’s decision comes amid a major anti-graft drive across the government.

After a trial of more than two weeks, the court in Hanoi convicted dozens of ex-officials – including several senior diplomats and a former deputy foreign minister – of receiving, offering or being complicit in bribes, fraud and abusing positions of power.

The defendants were involved in a scheme in which diplomats and businesspeople took money from Vietnamese citizens abroad who wanted to return to the country on repatriation flights during the pandemic, when commercial travel was not available.

The court said the defendants “must be punished seriously”.

State-run newspaper VTC reported that 25 state officials were found guilty of taking pay-offs worth a total of $7.4m (£5.8m).

Life sentences were handed out to four former high ranking officials at the ministries of foreign affairs, health and public security, while ten businesspeople and civilians received suspended sentences.

Pham Trung Kien, ex-secretary to the deputy health minister, and To Anh Dung, former deputy minister of foreign affairs, were some of the most high profile names caught up in the scandal.

Prosecutors had sought the death penalty for Kien, who received a life sentence for being the recipient of 253 bribes in an 11 month period worth a total of $1.8m (£1.4m).

Nearly 800 flights were organised by the government in early 2020 to bring citizens back from around the world at a time when Vietnam had closed its borders to nearly all travellers except returning citizens.

Official and social media reports detail how returnees faced complicated procedures, expensive flight prices and quarantine charges to enter Vietnam.

One mother from Hanoi told AFP news agency that she had to spend $12,000 (£9320) to get her teenage daughter back into the country from Europe during the pandemic’s peak.

In court Dung, who received a 16 year prison sentence, said he had received hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of bribes to add companies to a list of repatriation flight providers.

He admitted to receiving payment once the flights had been completed.

“I did not think at that time I had done something wrong,” he said, adding that he thought he was helping to facilitate repatriations.

One businesswoman accused of giving bribes to eight officials said that no one at the foreign ministry had asked her to hand over money.

“But I knew we had to bribe them for approval and permission so that the flights would be made on time,” said Hoang Dieu Mo, who was given a seven year sentence.

The convictions come amid a major anti corruption crackdown which has seen hundreds of officials investigated. Many have been forced to step down including two deputy prime ministers.

It was allegations of corruption in the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic that forced former president Nguyen Xuan Phuc to suddenly resign in January this year.

By Nadeem Shad – BBC News – July 28, 2023

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