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Rights groups slam Vietnamese tycoon's death sentence

Human Rights Watch calls Truong My Lan’s punishment 'cruel and unusual'
Truong My Lan arrives at a court in Ho Chi Minh City on March 5.

Truong My Lan arrives at a court in Ho Chi Minh City on March 5. (Photo: AFP)


Published: April 15, 2024 06:34 AM GMT
Updated: April 15, 2024 07:13 AM GMT

Human rights groups have come out in defense of a Vietnamese real estate tycoon who was sentenced to death by a court in Ho Chi Minh City for her role in a US$12.5 billion corruption scandal that outraged the public and resulted in the prosecution of 84 people.

Truong My Lan, chairwoman of Van Thinh Phat Holdings Group, was the only defendant sentenced to death and the only one who maintained her innocence, and instead blamed her subordinates.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, noted that Vietnam did not usually publicize death sentences but was likely the second largest user of the penalty in Asia after China, with hundreds executed every year.

“This woman has now been found guilty of massive fraud,” he said. “But the bottom line is that even if she goes to prison for the rest of her life, she shouldn't face the death penalty.

“That's cruel and unusual punishment that is outrageous and unacceptable, and Vietnam should commute that sentence to life in prison, or whatever the prosecutors deem appropriate, but certainly not sentenced to death,” he said.

Death sentences, carried out by lethal injection, for financial crimes are rare in Vietnam and typically reserved for crimes like murder and terrorism.

Amnesty International also says Vietnam’s use of the death penalty ranks among the highest in the world.

The one-party communist state launched its Blazing Furnace campaign more than four years ago to counter mounting anger over a series of banking and financial scandals.

Lan was sentenced to an additional 40 years behind bars after the court found she had amassed a fortune equivalent to 3 percent of Vietnam’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

However, some analysts have said the Blazing Furnace crackdown was also being used by Communist Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong to purge his political enemies.

Vietnamese president Vo Van Thuong was forced to resign last month amid an embarrassing scandal and efforts by the communist leadership to open the country’s doors to foreign trade and diplomacy.

A papal tour is expected later this year, a first since 1975.

Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at Australia's University of New South Wales, said Vietnam’s largest-ever embezzlement case also raised questions about accountability among senior members of the Communist Party and the State Bank of Vietnam.

“Vietnam paints the billionaire’s death sentence as a victory for clean governance. It’s not,” Thayer said, adding, “Only small fry appear to have been charged with receiving bribes in the current court proceedings.… Perhaps it’s a case of let sleeping dogs lie.”

The court also found that Lan, 68, had used proxies to take illegal control of the Saigon Joint Stock Commercial Bank which was then used to provide loans for her real estate acquisitions.

“There is no reason for Lan to be executed,” said one analyst who declined to give his name because he lives in Vietnam.

“There is no place for the death penalty but more so for crimes that do not involve violence. Lan’s crimes are serious but don’t warrant her execution.”

Robertson said despite Vietnam's pledges, there had been no reforms or backing away from the death penalty and the international community needed to do more by pressuring Vietnam into abandoning capital punishment.

“What is shocking in this case is this person is one of the most high-profile real estate business persons in the country,” he said. “She was hobnobbing with the elites. She was someone who was a daily fixture in the news.”

“This is a person who owns some of the most important, luxurious developments in Vietnam. And now she's facing the death penalty.”

“What it shows is that Vietnam, unfortunately, applies this ultimate sanction not just for violent crimes, but for crimes across the board.”

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