Vietnamese officials arrested in gambling bust

TN News

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Police in the Mekong Delta province of Soc Trang have detained two senior officials under investigation on charges that they had gambled billions of dong on Chinese chess matches.

The two officials have been suspended from their posts and will be detained for two months.

The arrests were made after Nguyen Thanh Leo, deputy chief of the provincial Transport Department, reported to police on December 22 that he and his family were in jeopardy for failing to pay his gambling debts.

Leo told the police that he and Tran Van Tan, director of a state-owned driver's training center in Soc Trang, had been betting on chess matches at local coffee shops for several months.

They initially bet several million dong, but gradually raised the stakes, which grew recently to VND1-5 billion (US$47,500-237,000) per match.

Leo said that when his debts reached VND22 billion, he sold his properties and borrowed money from acquaintances, but was only able to pay off VND5 billion.

Tan repeatedly pressed Leo to pay the remaining VND17 billion without success.

Then he allegedly hired a local gangster to threaten Leo and his family.

On December 22, Leo reported the affair to the provincial police, asking for protection for himself and his family.

The police then organized a sting operation in which Leo lured Tan to the Thy Tai 2 coffee shop in Soc Trang Town to gamble on chess yet again. The officials were caught red-handed at the shop by police officers.

Online newspaper VnExpress reported that the two officials had been meeting at the Thy Tai 2 Coffee Shop for almost a year to play chess.

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Sau Nhai, the shop's owner, said the two met every one to two weeks in a separate room to avoid being noticed.

A report in Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper said Leo was in panic while working with investigators after the arrest. He cried and repeatedly threatened to kill himself.

Leo and Tan are described by local residents as very rich men. Tan owns farms, coffee shops and luxury cars, while Leo owns villas and land plots.

Leo was earlier involved in a scandal in which he was accused of abusing his power to appropriate land from local people.

A company executive in Soc Trang, who requested anonymity, told Tuoi Tre that Leo owned many land plots belonging to state-owned construction projects.

He made profit by receiving site clearance compensation or selling the land plots outright.

Tan, meanwhile, is the owner of many local restaurants, a slaughterhouse and luxury cars. Tan usually boasts that he knows a lot of government officials to gain respect within business circles.

According to the Tuoi Tre report, Leo and Tan started betting on chess matches in 2009. At first they wagered only several hundred thousand dong, but raised the stakes dramatically over the last few months.

Meanwhile, a VnExpress report said that on Tuesday, police combed the workplaces and private residences of Leo and Tan. Leo's wife, whose name was not revealed, told police she had not known about her husband's gambling activities earlier.

Since Leo's arrest, his wife has barely walked out of their house for fear of being hurt by gangsters, she said.

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