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Trial opens for 50 Vietnam officials over rescue flight bribes

HANOI (AFP) – More than 50 officials went on trial in Vietnam on Tuesday for alleged corruption over repatriation flights during the COVID-19 pandemic, a scandal that has seen several senior ministers fired.

The case is part of a major anti-corruption drive that led to President Nguyen Xuan Phuc’s sudden resignation earlier this year – an unprecedented move in communist Vietnam, where political changes are normally carefully orchestrated.

Early Tuesday morning, state media ran photos of the defendants – all wearing masks – as they were led by uniformed police to the court building in central Hanoi where they underwent a security check.

Defendants (front row standing) in a courtroom for the repatriation flight trial in Hanoi, Vietnam. PHOTO: AFP

Among those on trial are Hanoi’s former deputy mayor Chu Xuan Dung and ex-Vietnamese ambassador to Japan Vu Hong Nam, who had given the state more than USD75,000 each as “money to fix the consequences”, said state news website VNExpress.

Earlier in the week, state-run newspaper Thanh Nien, said prosecutors would charge “21 officials and civil servants… for receiving almost seven million dollars from up to 100 businesses to solve administrative procedures for repatriation”.

Thirty-three others will face various other charges, including “offering or intermediating bribes, fraudulence and power abuse”, the report said.

The total amount of bribery money involved reached USD9.5 million, according to Thanh Nien’s report on Monday.

That included about USD2.65 million given to police officials to avoid prosecution, it added.

Eighteen defendants, including To Anh Dung, former deputy minister of foreign affairs, and Nguyen Quang Linh, former assistant to the deputy prime minister, could face the death penalty if found guilty.

Pham Trung Kien, ex-secretary to the deputy health minister, received 253 bribes over 11 months totalling USD1.8 million, VNExpress said on Tuesday.

In early 2020, Vietnam closed itself off to the world in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus and organised nearly 800 charter flights to bring citizens home from 60 countries and territories.

But travellers faced complicated procedures while paying exorbitant airfares and quarantine fees to get back to Vietnam, according to official and social media reports.

Dung is alleged to have received nearly USD910,000 in bribes to add companies to a list of repatriation flight providers. 

The graft allegations come as part of an anti-corruption purge that has involved a number of deals done during Vietnam’s COVID pandemic response.

Earlier in the year, the country’s rubber-stamp National Assembly removed Pham Binh Minh and Vu Duc Dam from their positions as deputy prime ministers.

Minh was a minister of foreign affairs while Dam was in charge of the country’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

At least 100 officials and businesspeople, including Dam’s assistant, have been arrested in connection with a scandal involving the distribution of Covid-19 testing kits.

The purge – led by Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong – also brought down President Phuc, who “took political responsibility” for various officials’ shortcomings, a party central committee statement said at the time.

Authoritarian Vietnam is run by the Communist Party and officially led by the party general secretary, president and prime minister, with key decisions made by the politburo.

The repatriation flight trial, which follows a yearlong investigation and involves more than 100 defence lawyers, is scheduled to last one month.

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