Ulterior motives hinted at in verdict against Labor Hero

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The eight-year imprisonment verdict against a labor hero on slush fund charges has drawn strong criticism from very senior officials, and some have hinted that issues other than corruption and justice were at stake.

"I hope central judicial agencies will reconsider the case thoroughly, especially as it has attracted more and more criticism from the public," Chairwoman of the Party's Mass Mobilization Commission, Ha Thi Khiet, told the media on the sidelines of a National Assembly session Tuesday.

Khiet was referring to the case involving 60-year-old Tran Ngoc Suong, former director of the state-run collective farm of Song Hau in the Mekong Delta's city of Can Tho.

An appeals court last Thursday upheld the sentence handed down against Suong last August . The Can Tho City People's Court also ordered her to pay back VND4.3 billion (US$240,500) to the government.

Khiet said there shouldn't have been a jail term in Suong's case. "They should not have excluded her contributions during the trial. I think she set up that fund to help others and the operation of the farm," she said.

Former Vice President Nguyen Thi Binh has also said she was very upset with the verdict against Suong

Tran Ngoc Suong, former director of Song Hau Farm in Can Tho City, receives an award from the municipal administration in 2004 to mark the farm's 25th anniversary

"Suong is single and has devoted her whole life to run the farm for the lives of thousands of farmers," she said. "She maintained the fund not for herself, and has not hidden anything for her own benefit."

Justice Minister Ha Hung Cuong also said there was some problem with the "fluent implementation of laws" in the case and that he supported the suspension of the verdict's implementation.

Land, the issue?

NA deputy Duong Trung Quoc of Dong Nai Province said it was possible that land was an issue in the case.

"I am not making a comment on information that the city of Can Tho wanted to take land from the Song Hau Farm for an urban project, but I have seen that land is often the main factor behind many actions," he said.

He also said it was unacceptable if it was actually true that the Can Tho Party Unit had instructed relevant agencies to press charges against Suong.

Suong's lawyer, Nguyen Truong Thanh, said former Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet had talked with him about the case and had sent a letter to the Can Tho Party Unit before he died in June 2008.

In his letter, Kiet questioned the agency about the actual cause for a Party Unit to instruct investigation agencies to conduct an investigation, Thanh said.

The former Prime Minister had also opposed a policy to revoke 4,000 hectares of the Song Hau Farm and 1,000 hectares of the Co Do Farm for industrial park projects, Thanh added.

Lawyer Pham Hong Hai, vice chairman of Vietnam Bar Federation, said the verdict against Suong was unreasonable.

He said the Penal Code stipulates that a criminal charge could be dropped in case of changes in the society that make the violator and the violating behavior a threat no longer.

He said the market economy allows enterprises to operate on their own financial capacity and they can use their money for any fund.

"The concerned judicial agencies have not considered the market economy factor during the trial," he said.

Hai also highlighted the historical factor of the fund, which was set up by Suong's deceased father - labor hero Tran Ngoc Hoang and had lasted until recently without any complaints.

The fund was not formed from the budget but from the extra work of farmers who have volunteered to contribute the money to spend during guests' receptions and to award farmers and their children, he said.

"Thus, Suong herself doesn't demonstrate the behavior of setting up slush funds as accused," he said.

Many Song Hau farmers had entered the collective landless and with few prospects, and had since become prosperous, earning Suong their gratitude and the government's recognition as Labor Hero. Many have since publicly offered to serve the prison sentence in her place.

Judicial review

Hoang Nghia Mai, deputy head of the Supreme Procuracy, Vietnam's highest prosecution office, said the agency would review the case.

"We have instructed the Can Tho People's Prosecution Agency to make a report and forward documents in the case," he said, adding that his agency make an announcement on the case soon.

Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung had on Monday said concerned agencies should handle the case properly and legally.

"I'm interested in this case. Information can be provided in many ways but the sentence will be imposed based on the record... The authorized agencies must listen to all feedback and information so that they can carry out the trial fairly," Dung told reporters on the sidelines of the National Assembly session.

He also added that Vietnamese laws stipulate conditions for issuing stricter or lenient punishments.

The National Assembly's Justice Committee said it could supervise concerned agencies' handling of the case.

Nguyen Thi Thu Ba, the committee chairwoman, said the body and she herself have "followed closely the case's progress."

On Monday, Minister of Public Security Le Hong Anh said he had instructed the Can Tho City Police Department to make a report about the case, adding that it was an urgent order.

On Monday, Suong lodged her appeal to the head judge of the Supreme People's Court and central agencies, saying the investigation, pressing charges and trial were unlawful and unjust.

She also requested that implementation of the verdict be delayed on health grounds.

Suong was named a Labor Hero by the government in 2000 and was honored at the International Federation of Business & Professional Women's Women Inspire Awards in 2002.

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