Mother awaits justice in reporter's murder

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Family and co-workers of slain journalist reject police conclusions, saying there are too many loose ends in the case


Nguyen Thi Kim Nga, 75, the mother of murdered journalist Le Hoang Hung, is afraid she might die before the case gets to trial with police apparently ignoring several leads and drawing conclusions not accepted by the family of the victim. Photo: Hien Dong.

When 75-year-old Nguyen Thi Kim Nga was asked to go to the local police station investigating her journalist son's gruesome murder for the first time, nearly a year had passed.

"They called me and questioned me about whether and why I lodged a complaint to the central agencies, rather than focus on my son's death," she told Vietweek last Monday (January 30) at her house in Long An Province's Thu Thua District.

Nga's son Le Hoang Hung, a journalist with the Nguoi Lao Dong (Laborer) newspaper, was set on fire while he was sleeping in his bed on the night of January 19, 2011. He died 11 days later.

The investigation by the police into his death has been dogged by controversy from the very beginning, frustrating Hung's family and prompting Nga to file complaints with the offices of President Truong Tan Sang, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and judiciary leaders.

"I lodged the complaint because there has been no trial so many months after my son's death," she said.

"Also, I think my daughter-in-law would never be able to kill my son [without help]. I want investigators to find her possible accomplice[s] who instigated the murder."

In July 2011, police wrapped up their initial investigation, concluding that Hung's 42-year-old wife, Tran Thuy Lieu was the only culprit in her husband's murder. They said Hung had become aware of an extramarital affair taking place between his wife and Nguyen Van Tam, a former official at the Long An Market Management Agency a governmental office in charge of detecting trade violations.

Nga spoke of her vexation at the sluggish progress in her son's case and questioned the methods being employed by investigators.

When they called her to the police station, the investigators did not allow her son, Le Hoang Minh, or her licensed lawyer Nguyen Van Duc, to sit in, saying they only wanted to interview Nga.

In response to Nga's formal complaint, the Long An People's Court has ordered a fresh probe into the murder of the investigative journalist, which relatives and colleagues have always insisted could not have been perpetrated by Hung's wife without significant help from other person[s].

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On Monday, Cao Minh Tri, a spokesman for Long An prosecutors' office told Vietweek that the provincial people's court had asked the police to conduct an additional probe into Hung's case.

"The police had recorded Hung's testimony when he was in the hospital but it was not included in the file," he said.

"Police would also have to clarify calls and text messages between Lieu and Tam before and after Hung was set on fire."

The court has requested Lieu's confession to examine potential contradictions.

"Lieu confessed to the killing, saying she wanted to sell the family house but Hung refused," Tri explained. He said arson was an odd choice, considering it "could have destroyed the house and she would not be able to sell the property then."

Loose ends

On January 19, 2011, Hung was set on fire at around 1 a.m. while he was asleep in his bed at his house in Dai Duong Residential Area a new and sparsely populated area in Long An's Tan An Town in the Mekong Delta.

He died 11 days later from severe burns he had sustained on 60 percent of his body.

The case grabbed headlines both locally and abroad. Hung had covered several corruption cases in the Mekong Delta as a local correspondent of the Nguoi Lao Dong newspaper in Long An, Tien Giang and Ben Tre provinces.

A month after his death, Lieu turned herself in to the police, saying that she had killed Hung because he beat her and accused her of having an affair and that he had refused to sell their house to cover her debts. She said she bought two liters of gasoline in a plastic bag, tied a rope on the balcony to make it seem someone had come into the house from outside, and set her husband on fire on her own.

The confession drew more questions from his family and the public, who suspected there were more people involved. They argued that a wife would never kill her husband with the causes listed so far as motivation.

The latest demand for additional investigation was made after almost a year of transferring the case forward and back among judicial agencies.

An important aspect of the case, which seems to have been insufficiently examined by authorities, is the alleged relationship between Lieu and Tam, the former market watchdog official. Tam was sacked from his post in August for gambling and having an affair with Lieu.

Police said Lieu had accompanied Tam to Cambodian casinos several times, crossing the border illegally.

The provincial prosecutors' office has rejected the conclusions of the initial investigation and has asked that police scrutinize several details, including Tam's lack of an alibi and Lieu's motivation for murder and the contradictions in her confession.

In September 2011, the prosecutors' office ratified murder charges against Lieu and transferred the case to the Long An People's Court.

Unlikely

Hung's younger brother, Le Hoang Thanh echoed his mother when he said he does not believe Lieu had acted alone.

"We have known each other for years. She would not dare to kill a chicken or a duck, how is it that she can kill a human being?" said the 43-year-old daily laborer.

Nga's attorney, Nguyen Van Duc, said that the new probe was a good sign. However, he did not comment on the possibility of other suspects, saying he was waiting for the results of the new investigation.

Meanwhile, editor-in-chief Do Danh Phuong of Nguoi Lao Dong said that he and other people at the newspaper knew Lieu was involved but was not the only one "soon after we visited Hung at the hospital."

"Logically, a wife may set her husband on fire due to a sudden conflict. There was no sudden conflict in this case," he told the Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper in a recent interview.

"Hung was a good reporter and was covering various fields, including corruption. It is too simple to conclude that this was a case of a wife killing her husband," he said.

"Before, during and after Hung's funeral, Tam and Lieu exchanged a number of phone calls, text messages and hand-written letters. Why didn't investigators clarify this issue?" he said.

Le Hoang Tuan, Hung's younger brother, also visited him at the hospital and asked him who he thought it was who set him ablaze. Hung refused to say, changing the subject quickly.

On January 20, Nguoi Lao Dong received a document from the governmental office notifying that Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc has instructed relevant agencies to clarify Hung's case.

But Nga, Hung's mother, said she had grown weary waiting for a trial.

 "I am old and may die any time. I am afraid that I will die before a trial opens and the actual culprits are convicted."

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