Vietnam jails former officials and diplomats in mass bribery trial

More than 50 people are found guilty of corruption charges over repatriation flights during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This picture taken and released by the Vietnam News Agency (VNA) on July 28, 2023 shows defendants (in civil shirts) standing for sentencing in a Hanoi courtroom for the repatriation flight trial. - 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 July 28. (Photo by Vietnam News Agency / Vietnam News Agency / AFP)
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 their verdict [Vietnam News Agency via AFP]

A Vietnamese court has handed prison sentences to 54 officials and businesspeople, including a former deputy foreign minister, in one of the country’s largest ever bribery cases.

The defendants were found guilty on Friday of taking part in a scheme in which diplomats and companies took money from Vietnamese citizens abroad who wanted to return home on “rescue flights” during the COVID-19 pandemic when commercial flights were not available, state media reported.

The trial marked the latest escalation of the government’s anti-graft campaign, under which hundreds of officials have been investigated and many forced to quit, including President Nguyen Xuan Phuc and two deputy prime ministers.

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

Of the convicted, 25 state officials were found guilty of receiving bribes totalling up to 175 billion dong ($7.4m), the state-run newspaper VTC reported.

Among them, former Deputy Foreign Minister To Anh Dung was found guilty of taking 21.5 billion dong ($908,000) of bribes, according to VTC.

Dung admitted to the court that he had received the 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.

Vietnam's former deputy minister of foreign affairs To Anh Dung is led into court by police for sentencing during the repatriation flight trial in Hanoi on July 28, 2023. (Photo by Anh TUC / AFP)
Former Deputy Foreign Minister To Anh Dung is led into court in Hanoi on July 28, 2023, for sentencing for bribery over COVID-19 repatriation flights [Anh Tuc/AFP]

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 and 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.

‘We had to bribe them’

But the verdict read that 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”, it said.

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 sentenced to seven years in jail.

A Hanoi mother told the Agence France-Presse new agency 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 said on the condition of anonymity.

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

Source: News Agencies