Vietnam province refuses to return dubious stone to finder

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  The 7.8-ton stone on display at a central square in Pleiku Town, the Central Highlands province of Gia Lai, after being confiscated from a local resident for having been illegally mined.

Authorities in the Central Highlands province of Gia Lai have raised plenty of eyebrows by holding onto and publicly displaying an illegally mined stone they seized last year without having its value appraised.

After a two-day hearing, Chu Se District's People's Court on August 22 rejected Tran Thi Sac's complaint against Nguyen Hong Linh, chairman of the district's People's Committee.

Sac sued Linh for wrongly confiscating a 7.8-ton stone she found while digging a well in her garden in March of last year. She was also VND2 million fined for "transporting minerals without legal origins."

According to the board of judges, evidence that Sac presented as to why she should have the stone returned to her was "not rational," so they upheld Linh's decision.

However, speaking to Thanh Nien after the trial, Sac's lawyer Vo Thi Tiet said the judges had made an "abnormal" verdict. Sac said she will appeal the decision.

Tiet said the judges did not mention violations that Chu Se District authorities made when confiscating the stone and issuing the fine.

The district People's Committee made the decision in a hurry, contradicting regulations on administrative fines for mineral violations, she said.

The most remarkable thing is that they failed to verify the stone's value: whether it is precious, semi-precious, or ordinary, according to Tiet.

Previously, Nguyen Dinh Vien, head of Chu Se's division of environment and natural resources, said at the hearing that: "Whatever they are, stones are minerals, meaning that they belong to the government."

Therefore, Sac violated rules when transporting the stone from her garden to her house without authorities' permission, said the official who represented Linh.

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He also spoke of Sac digging a well in her garden, saying that any action that distorts the soil must be licensed by authorities. But, his claim was rejected by Tiet, who said that Vietnamese law does not require people to obtain a license to dig a well on their land.

In interviews with Thanh Nien, many experts also raised questions about the reasons for Chu Se authorities' confiscation of Sac's stone.

Dr. Nguyen Van Cuong, deputy head of the Institute of Judging Science with the People's Supreme Court, said the case's "core matter" is to verify if it is an average stone or a mineral that would be considered national property.

Pham Van Phat of the Hanoi Bar Association said that since it is impossible to tell whether a stone is precious without chemical and physical analyses, it is "unacceptable" to charge Sac with violating the ban on illegally transporting minerals.

No regulations in Vietnam require people to be able to distinguish precious stones from normal ones, he added.

Meanwhile, Lai Hong Thanh, head of the administration of mineral activities under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, said the way Chu Se's authorities handled the case was "a little too much."

They should have done it in accordance with not only laws but reality which is that Sac only accidentally found the stone in her garden, Thanh said.

Under Vietnamese laws, when the government confiscates precious minerals that people mine or discover by accident, it must compensate them.

It is "a pity" that Chu Se's related agencies did not adhere to that regulation, Thanh said.

More flak

Thanh Nien reporters found that the questionable stone has been on display at a central square in Pleiku Town since last October, when the disputed case had yet to be settled.

Phan Xuan Vu, director of Gia Lai Province's Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, said the display was done in accordance with an order from provincial authorities who wanted to give the public an opportunity to "admire" the stone.

A rock garden will be built there in the future as a destination to attract tourists, he added.

The official also told Thanh Nien that his department "totally" had no idea that the stone was an exhibit from a court case.

Thanh Nien reporters observed the stone was placed on a platform in replacement of the statue of Dinh Nup, a national hero from the country's revolution against the French colonial regime.

A tag on the platform indicates it is a silica chalcedony stone.

Many ornamental stone experts in Gia Lai told Thanh Nien that it is a semi-precious stone and does not have much aesthetic value.

Van Cong Hung, editor-in-chief of the Gia Lai Entertainment and Arts Magazine of the Gia Lai Association for Literature and Arts, said he does not understand why authorities placed the stone on the platform belonging to the memorial of a national hero.

It is "not right" in terms of aesthetics, because the stone is not precious, and there are probably many stones that are bigger and more precious out there in Gia Lai, he said.

Pham Trung, an expert with the Institute of Fine Arts under the Vietnam University of Fine Arts, also questioned the wisdom of displaying Sac's stone.

He said it is a semi-precious stone and should be considered an ornamental object, adding that if local authorities truly planned to keep it there, it would be concerning to experts.

In the meantime, lawyer Nguyen Van Hau, vice chairman of HCMC Bar Association, said Gia Lai authorities violated the law by placing an item on display while there was a pending lawsuit regarding it.

Chu Se's authorities also drew criticism when they put the stone in a cage and kept it at the headquarters of the district People's Committee in April last year.

The caging was then mocked in local media headlines; nearly one month later the authorities released the stone from the cage, and placed it under 24-hour surveillance. 

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