Officials escape jail term in illegal land eviction

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Four of five officials have  escaped jail term in a high-profile land eviction case which left several farmers jailed for attempted murder in the northern city of Hai Phong .


A Hai Phong court Wednesday handed down the suspended sentences ranging from 15 to 24 months to the officials who were convicted of damaging property belonging to the family of Doan Van Vuon, a 53-year-old farmer in Vinh Quang Commune, during a violent eviction in January last year.


Nguyen Van Khanh, 52, former vice chairman of Tien Lang District People's Committee, was the only official to get a jail term. He was jailed for 30 months in prison, the court said.


Pham Xuan Hoa, 58, former chief of the committee's Natural Resources and Environment Office, and Le Thanh Liem, 50, former chairman of Vinh Quang Commune, got two years' probation each.


Pham Dang Hoan, 53, former Party chief of the commune, and Le Van Hien, 56, former chairman of Tien Lang District People's Committee, got 15 months' probation each.


Khanh, Hoa, Liem and Hoan were charged with "damaging properties" while Hien was charged with "irresponsibility causing serious consequences."


According to the indictment, on January 5, 2012, Khanh, the only official to receive jail term, directly instructed 100 police officers and soldiers to evict Vuon from 19 hectares (47 acres) of swampland leased out to him in 1993 for 14 years in Vinh Quang Commune.


The officers damaged the house, some tents erected near a fish pond and other property belonging to Vuon's family.


Hoa, Liem and Hoan had helped Khanh perform the land eviction, the court said.


Property damage was estimated at more than VND295 million (US$14,100).


Hien was charged for failing to supervise and inspect his subordinates, letting them illegally damage Vuon's properties.


Last Friday, Vuon and his younger brother Doan Van Quy were sentenced to five years in prison each for attempted murder, after they used weapons to resist the land revocation.


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.

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.

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.

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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