Vietnam jails officials over rescue flight bribes

Vietnam's former deputy minister of foreign affairs To Anh Dung being led into the court by police for the repatriation flight trial in Hanoi on July 11, 2023. Photo: AFP

Hanoi, Vietnam | A Vietnamese court on Friday gave lengthy sentences to high-ranking officials and businesspeople facing bribery and corruption charges over repatriation flights during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The more than two-week trial in Hanoi was part of a major anti-graft drive that led to former president Nguyen Xuan Phuc's sudden resignation earlier this year -- an unprecedented move in a country where political changes are normally carefully orchestrated.

A total of 54 officials and businesspeople were found guilty of receiving, offering or being the go-between for bribes, carrying out fraud and abusing positions of power, judges said in a verdict Friday.

Four former senior officials at the ministries of foreign affairs, health and public security were sentenced to life in jail.

Ten businesspeople and civilians received suspended sentences.

The total amount of bribes in this case reached $9.5 million, reports said.

"The bribe money was extremely huge... so much bigger than the average income of civil servants," the verdict said.

Among the high-ranking officials sentenced on Friday were To Anh Dung, former deputy minister of foreign affairs, Nguyen Quang Linh, former assistant to the deputy prime minister and Pham Trung Kien, ex-secretary to the deputy health minister.

Kien was jailed for life under the charge of receiving 253 bribes over 11 months totalling $1.8 million.

Dung admitted to the court that he had received nearly $910,000 in bribes, mostly at his office at the foreign ministry in Hanoi, to add companies to a list of repatriation flight providers.

He was given 16 years in jail.

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

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

Dung told the court that he received the cash once the flights were completed.

"I did not think at that time I had done something wrong... I only thought I had facilitated the companies," to bring back Vietnamese citizens from abroad, Dung said.

- 'Undermining trust' -

According to the verdict, the former officials had abused their positions of power and the pandemic "for personal benefit".

The move "badly undermined the prestige of state agencies and sectors... causing anger in society and undermining people's trust".

Defendants "must be punished seriously," the court said.

During the trial, Hoang Dieu Mo, a businesswoman who allegedly gave bribes to eight officials said: "at (the foreign ministry), no one asked me to give them money".

"But I knew we had to bribe them for approval and permission so that the flights would be made on time," Mo told the court.

She was given seven years in jail.

A Hanoi mother told AFP she had to spend up to $12,000 for her teenage daughter to get back to Vietnam from a boarding school in Europe at the peak of the pandemic.

"I do not know how my money had been spent or how it was split among those officials," she told AFP on the condition of anonymity.

"I know I will not get that money back. But really, these officials need severe punishment for their actions."

© Agence France-Presse

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