Ultra-light sentences awarded in Vietnam major gold smuggling case

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Seven defendants originally charged with smuggling 336 kilograms of gold got away with very light sentences on January 22 in a case where lawyers said prosecutors illegally changed the offence they were charged with. / PHOTO: HOANG PHUONG

Seven people originally charged with smuggling huge quantities of gold from Cambodia to Vietnam, an offence punishable with life sentences, have escaped with the sentences of less than two years after the charge was changed to carrying out “illegal business activities.”

Legal experts have said the change in charges was illegal and not based on evidence.

Kingpins Nguyen Ngoc Luan, 55, and his sister-in-law Nguyen Thi Tuyet Van, 48, were also allowed to get back 92 kilograms of gold that were first accused of being smuggled into Vietnam, according to the trial held at the Chau Thanh District People’s Court in the Mekong Delta province of Tien Giang on January 22.

According to the indictment, on February 4, 2010, the provincial police discovered the gold bars under the seats of a car that Le Van Don, 55, Hong Duc Sanh, 64, and Nguyen Van Loi, 35, were travelling in.

They were transporting the gold, which was estimated at nearly VND64.6 billion (US$3 million) then, to Pham Tung Nguyen, 56, and Tieu Khai Phen, 45, in Ho Chi Minh City on the orders of Luan and Van.

Prosecutors said Luan and Van bought the gold with unclear origins from two women whose identities were never clarified in nearby An Giang Province.

The gold bars were among a total 336 kilograms of gold they had bought before being arrested, they said.

The trade had caused tax losses of VND614 million ($28,900) to the state budget, they said.

Luan, Van, Nguyen, and Phen were not licensed for doing business in gold bars, the prosecutors said.

The court sentenced Luan to one year and nine months in prison, while Van got one and half years. They were also ordered to pay fines of VND30 million ($1,400) each.

Nguyen and Phen each received jail terms of one year and four months, and had to pay VND20 million ($942) each in fines.

Three other defendants were sentenced to one year, three months and 22 days each, equal to the time they were detained during the investigation.

Explaining the verdicts, Judge Truong Thi Tuyet Linh said the defendants had admitted their offences “honestly,” and did not have previous criminal records.

They also had made good on the tax losses suffered by the state, and surrendered benefits they had earned from their illegal activities (the benefits were not specified), she said.

She also said that it was “not a very serious case.”

However, the Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reported that in 1998, An Giang police had investigated both Luan and Van on charges of smuggling gold bars, but later, local prosecutors suspended the investigation.

Under Vietnamese laws, people who smuggle goods with a value of more than VND1 billion ($46,600) are punishable with life sentences.

Change of charges

In 2011, Tien Giang prosecutors had ratified charges of smuggling against the seven defendants.

According to prosecutors, Luan and Van then told the police that they had bought the gold from a woman in Phnom Penh. Later, Vietnamese and Cambodian police identified the woman as Tang Ly Sun, a gold trader.

Between January and February 2010, the duo bought a total of 336 kilograms for gold from her, including the busted amount, and resold them to Nguyen and Phen.

In August 2011, the Tien Giang People’s Court refused to try the case and ordered further investigations, saying that there was not enough evidence to charge the suspects with smuggling.

On September 25 last year, the province’s police department transferred the case to Chau Thanh District’s police division so the latter could start a fresh investigation into the case, this time on the charge of carrying out illegal business activities.

Police said the change was because Luan and Van had denied their connections with the woman in Cambodia, and said that they bought the gold from two women in the nearby An Giang Province instead.

No explanation was given as to how this change in confessions – from the previous investigation on the basis of which the charge of smuggling had already been ratified – was accepted by the authorities.

Without identifying the identities of the women in An Giang, Chau Thanh police filed the new charges with the district’s prosecutors who ratified them.

Looks illegal

Speaking to Tuoi Tre, lawyer Vo Tuan Vinh Thuy with the Tien Giang Bar Association said the indictment was apparently illegal, because charges cannot be adjusted due to changes in the defendants’ statements, only on solid evidence.

He also said that what police had previously found about the woman in Cambodia should have been very important evidence to charge them with smuggling.

Meanwhile, Phan Van Nha, deputy head of Tien Giang Party Unit’s Interior Commission, which is tasked with fighting corruption, refused to comment on the verdict, saying that his agency needs to review the whole case. 

He told the newspaper that the case, which was involved a large amount of gold, had drawn a great public attention, so the commission sent him to attend the hearing.

Linh, the judge, said it was impossible to try the defendants for charges different from the indictment.

“If there is something dubious, we can make proposals with related agencies accordingly,” she said.

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