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Thayer Consultancy Background Brief:

ABN # 65 648 097 123


Carlyle A. Thayer
Vietnam: Trial of 29 Dong
Tam Villagers
September 10, 2020

We request your assessment of the current trial of Dong Tam villagers involved in a
violent land rights protest
Q1. What is your assessment of the Dong Tam trial that just opened?
ANSWER: The Dong Tam trial is expected to last ten days and proceeding so far raise
serious concerns that the trial will not be free and fair. Three defendants with bruised
faces appeared on national TV on 13 January to confess they had been in possession
of petrol bombs and homemade weapons. Human rights and civil society groups claim
the confessions were forced. Government authorities removed material such as
videos and commentaries from social media that was critical of the police.
Defence lawyers and family members both claim they have been prevented by the
police from meeting with the defendants. Family members have not been permitted
into the courthouse to observe the trial. At least nineteen defendants indicated they
were beaten by police while in pre-trial detention. Defence lawyers also allege that
the prosecution failed to provide evidence prior to the proceedings and that this
evidence has been introduced in court to the prejudice of their clients.
Q2. What considerations do you think the government of Vietnam should make in
deciding how harsh the sentencing should be for the accused in this trial? In other
words, how do you think the death sentence for some of these accused would impact
Vietnamese people and/or their responses?
ANSWER: The Dong Tam case stands out as one of the most violent and prolonged
land rights dispute in Vietnam. It was brought to an end when a combination of 3,000
police and security officials mounted an early morning assault on Dong Tam village.
This provoked a violent response by villagers. The current court proceeding is unlikely,
however, to consider whether excessive force was used by the police as a mitigating
circumstance.
The Dong Tam trial is exceptional because three policemen and one village elder were
killed in a clash with villagers on 9 January. Reportedly, the three policemen were
killed as a result of a petrol bomb attack. This is a very serious charge. Also, the police
have charged several defendants with the death of the village elder, while the co-
defendants vigorously assert the elder was shot by the police.
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The three deceased policemen were given posthumous honours by President Nguyen
Phu Trong. Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc attended the funeral.
On 25 June, the Hanoi People’s Procuracy issued indictments on twenty-nine persons
for their role in the 9 January violent confrontation. Three defendants were charged
with murder, twenty-two were charged with being accomplices to murder, while the
remaining four were charged with obstructing police in the performance of their duty.
Generally, in high-profile cases, the Vietnamese justice system provides a degree of
leniency to defendants who confess. It also metes out harsh sentences to a few
individuals who are judged most culpable, while handing out a range of lesser
sentences to the remaining defendants. The Dong Tam trial appears to mirror this
profile.
On 8 September, eleven defendants confessed in court their involvement in the
violent protest. Four of the defendants who were charged with obstructing police
pleaded guilty, expressed repentance and asked for leniency. Three other defendants
admitted their guilt in throwing stones, petrol bombs and fireworks at police, while
four additional defendants admitted their involvement in violent acts and asked for
forgiveness.
On the third day of the trial, 9 September, the public prosecutor called for two of the
defendants to be sentenced to death for their role in killing three policemen and for a
third defendant to be given a life sentence. The prosecutors also called for the other
defendants to be given prison sentences ranging from eighteen months to eighteen
years.
Q3. How do you think this trial will affect land-grab situations in the future? And how
does it affect people’s view of the Vietnamese government when a long-standing
member of the communist party was being treated in this manner?
ANSWER: The Vietnam Communist Party always takes land protests seriously because
of their potential to undermine legitimacy, especially at local level. The Dong Tam case
will result in greater top-down monitoring and supervision when land protests first
break out. The Dong Tam case should also provoke a review of the standard operating
procedures and tactics on the use of force by police and security personnel.
In addition, the party will need to review its information and communication strategy.
The land protestors were described in the media as “rioters and terrorists.”
Lê Đình Kình, the 84-year old elder who was killed, was a retired local official who led
land protests in 2017. Because of his standing in the village Kinh became a prominent
advocate for aggrieved villagers who felt they were cheated out of land that belonged
to them. Local officials at first claimed he was found dead in his house on 9 January
clutching a grenade. However, a video in circulation viewed by Kinh’s family and
friends, reportedly shows bullet wounds. Local authorities then accused Kinh’s son
and two grandsons of murder.
Well-informed Vietnamese know that land protests are often provoked by venal local
authorities for their own financial benefit. Unless local officials are reprimanded or
punished for their actions, cynicism will grow among Vietnam’s elite over the veracity
of reporting by official information and communications outlets.
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Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “Vietnam: Trial of 29 Dong Tam Villagers,”


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