Farmers jailed in high-profile Vietnam land seizure case

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A court in the northern city of Hai Phong Friday handed down jail terms up to five years for six farmers who used weapons against local officials trying to seize their lands in a violent eviction that rocked the nation last year.

Doan Van Vuon and his younger brother Doan Van Quy were sentenced to five years in prison each for attempted murder, the court said.

Prosecutors Thursday recommended jail terms of 5-6 years for Vuon and four-and-a-half to five years for Quy.

Another brother of Vuon, Doan Van Sinh, and Sinh's son, Doan Van Ve, received jail terms of three and half years and two years respectively for the same count.

Vuon's wife Nguyen Thi Thuong got a suspended sentence of 15 months for opposing government officials on duty.

Pham Thi Bau, Quy's wife, was convicted of the same charge as Thuong, and also received a suspended sentence of one and half years.

At the trial that opened Tuesday prosecutors said Vuon was the mastermind who instructed others to buy arms.

But since he has impeccable antecedents and had served in the army, they said they would be happy with a lenient sentence.

Another hearing is also slated for April 8-10, when five former officials of Tien Lang District, including People's Committee Chairman Le Van Hien, will stand trial for charges of "irresponsibility causing serious consequences" and "destroying property."

The case

On January 5, 2012, seven police and soldiers were injured by homemade mines and fire upon from improvised shotguns as an armed 100-strong force moved to evict Doan Van Vuon from 19 hectares (47 acres) of swampland leased out to him in 1993 for 14 years in Tien Lang District in Hai Phong City.

53-year-old Vuon, who turned an area of coastal swampland into seafood farms in Vinh Quang Commune, is said to have "poured much blood and sweat and all the savings of his family" to develop the land.

Prior to the evicion, after mediation by a judge, Vuon and his family were led to believe that he would be allowed to continue working on his land in return for withdrawing his lawsuit.

Instead, local authorities used the situation to let a statutory limit for mounting a legal challenge expire, and in an unusual step, deployed the army in evicting the farmer from his farm.

They also allegedly demolished Vuon's house after the confrontation.

The incident raised many questions including the rationale for deploying excessive force in the evacuation, which Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has officially dismissed as illegal.

Amidst the storm of controversy following the razing of Vuon's house, the PM had determined that the revocation had violated the country's land laws, and that it had also been carried out improperly in both terms of the size of the force that was used, and the razing of two houses belonging to Vuon's family.

Experts have said the clash showed how the farmers are pushed into a corner by the short-term land lease.

The 1993 Land Law granted farmers 20-year leases on their fields. All land belongs to the state in Vietnam, which does not technically allow land ownership but instead grants land-use rights.

About 71 percent of 88 million Vietnamese live in rural areas, and 62 percent depend on agriculture for their livelihood, according to the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization.

The 2003 Land Law and a government decree extended the allocation term, which had been slated to end in October of this year, for farmers who had been using the land purely for agricultural purposes.

The case has also caused disagreements among legal experts in Vietnam.

Some have suggested that there's no evidence proving that the farmers planned or intended to commit murder, and that furthermore, since that the revocation has been classified as illegal, they should not be charged with resisting an official mission.

It has also led to many calls for revising Vietnam's Land Law, including extending farmers' land use right.

The World Bank, for example, issued a policy note late last year calling on Vietnam to focus on reforms to address prevailing gaps and shortcomings in the Land Law.

In response to the calls, the Ministry of Natural Resource and Environment has introduced the draft of Amended Land Law and has been polling public opinions on it.

The draft is expected to be voted on this year and applied next year.

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