Jury out as Vietnam holds fast to white-collar noose

By An Dien, Thanh Nien News

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Policemen (center row) keep watch as inmates wait before being released from Hoang Tien prison, about 100 km (62 miles) outside Hanoi August 30, 2013. Despite the official enthusiasm, few outsiders believe that executions offer an effective means of deterring corruption. Photo credit: Reuters

Sipping a cup of coffee in his office overlooking the Saigon River, Lien Khui Thin, 62, questioned Vietnam's rationale for executing people like him. 
In 1999, Thin and two other men, including a prominent banker, were sentenced to death for embezzling VND3 trillion (now US$141 million) by falsifying government loan documents.
Thin's two accomplices were executed in 2003, but his sentence was reduced to life imprisonment. Then-President Tran Duc Luong attributed the clemency to Thin’s good behavior and his efforts to return the stolen funds.
In 2009, he was granted full amnesty. Less than a year later, he and his friends launched a charitable fund to help ex-convicts reintegrate into society. The fund offers financial and legal support to ex-convicts and their family members as well as the physically challenged and the poor. According to its annual reports, the fund helps hundreds a year.
Not surprisingly, Thin does not believe that white-collar criminals can best serve their country as corpses.
Given that Vietnam's business climate and rule of law remains “very complicated,” Thin says he is convinced that many of those sentenced to death here for economic crimes are, one way or another, “a victim of this mechanism”.
Fighting corruption with a needle
As legislators in Hanoi mull removing “war crimes” and “surrendering to the enemy” from Vietnam’s list of capital offenses, “corruption” apparently remains off the table.
The 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) ranked Vietnam 119 out of 175 countries and territories with a score of 31/100 -- a ranking that has held fast since 2012. Top officials here openly admit that corruption in the public sector remains a serious problem.
“We just cannot abolish the death penalty against those convicted of corruption and taking bribes,” Nguyen Doan Khanh, deputy head of the Central Interior Commission (an organ tasked with advising the Communist Party on anti-corruption efforts), said at a meeting held in Hanoi on January 30. “Those crimes are currently the most serious in our country and the practice has not abated.”
Few outsiders, however, believe that executions offer an effective means of deterring corruption.
“It is possible to be strict without handing down a death sentence,” said Jairo Acuña-Alfaro, the former anti-corruption policy advisor to the United Nations Development Program in Vietnam. “In that sense, a further consideration for the review of the Penal Code is to continue the process started with the 2009 amendment and remove the death penalty from the Penal Code.”
Staying on the short list
Vietnam enacted its first Penal Code in 1985 and did not remove “fraud” from its list of crimes punishable by death until 2009, when the National Assembly – the national legislative body -- reduced the number of capital crimes from 29 to 22.
More recently, the Ministry of Justice submitted a bill to the National Assembly that could cut seven more crimes from that list -- namely vandalizing equipment and works significant to national security, gross disturbances of public order, surrendering to enemy forces, acts of sabotage, waging invasive wars, and crimes against humanity.
Even in this climate of relative leniency, very few have suggested sparing the lives of sticky-fingered government officials or businessmen.
“Only the toughest punishment can push back this national calamity,” Nguyen Son, vice chief justice of the Supreme People’s Court, said during the January 30 meeting.
If mentality like Son's prevails, Vietnam will remain on a short list of states that execute people for white-collar offenses.
“There are very few places in the world today that mete out executions for economic offenses like corruption and fraud. In addition to Vietnam, the only other three other countries we know of are China, Iran and North Korea,” said Delphine Lourtau, a lead researcher at the Cornell University Law School-run website Death Penalty Worldwide (www.deathpenaltyinfo.org).
“In Iran, which has the highest per capita execution rate in the world and carries out more executions than any other country after China, we know of only one recent execution for bribery, which was carried out seven years ago,” she said.
Last September, a Ho Chi Minh City court upheld death sentences for three people -- one of whom was a government official -- in a high-profile embezzlement case at a subsidiary of the state-owned Vietnam Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (Agribank).
In recent years, China has executed several white collar criminals for fraud, corruption or illegal fundraising. At the same time, they have pursued a clear policy aimed at decreasing the use of capital punishment for economic crimes.
In 2011, Beijing approved a legislative reform bill that removed 13 mostly non-violent economic offenses from its list of capital crimes. Moreover, a number of the sentences were converted to prison terms after a period of good behavior.
“This review gives us an idea of how insulated Vietnam is on the world stage in making an increasingly vocal use of capital punishment for corruption,” Lourtau said.
 ‘You just cannot simply kill a person’
A number of independent studies have confirmed that the practice of giving and receiving bribes is so common in Vietnam that it is understood to be a routine part of doing business.
Many analysts blame the problem on Vietnam’s failure to complete the market reforms that began in the late 1980s.
“There is still too much state control over the economy, which allows connected insiders to profit,” a Vietnamese economist said, declining to be named.

Lien Khui Thin was sentenced to death for embezzling VND3 trillion (now US$141 million). Thin was granted full amnesty in 2009 and, less than a year later, he and his friends launched a charitable fund to help ex-convicts reintegrate into society. Photo: An Dien

Thin, the reformed former death-row inmate, pointed out that individuals who have access to centrally-planned or government controlled assets like land or capital are getting very rich. Individual entrepreneurs who have to compete without subsidized land, capital, fast-tracked approval, or tax breaks are having a much harder time.
This, he says, has fueled an entrenched bribe-for-approval system that has permeated the system.
“In the fight against endemic corruption in Vietnam, we just cannot simply kill a person while leaving a broken system untouched,” Thin told Thanh Nien News.
 'No one is fooled'
In 1997, Le Minh Hai, co-founder of Thin's inmate-support fund, was also sentenced to death for embezzlement. The court found him guilty of colluding with the director of a state-run company to obtain government bank loans for personal use.
The director was killed by a firing squad.
Because Hai’s father was Vietnam’s first Labor Hero (an honor awarded to individuals who have accomplished “outstanding achievements in labor and creation”), then-President Le Duc Anh agreed to reduce his sentence to life imprisonment. In 2005, he was granted total amnesty and now runs a private company that deals mostly with Russian partners.
During a three-hour interview at a café near his home, Hai offered frank criticism of the current system.

Le Minh Hai, co-founder of Lien Khui Thin's inmate-support fund, was also sentenced to death for embezzlement in 1997. Photo: An Dien

As Vietnam's new tough stance on corporate crime comes in the midst of major financial reforms and campaigns to root out corruption in an apparent bid to woo foreign investment, Hai said he doubted that investors would take any solace in executions.
“Foreign investors are likely to be impressed by economic reforms accompanied by respect for the rule of law and effective and systematic enforcement,” Hai said. “The bottom line is: show the public the real political will to rectify the root cause of corruption to deter it.
“There is no point in making noise about the extreme sentences that can be imposed. No one in Vietnam is fooled by this.”

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