A Vietnamese court has begun hearing the trial of four fish farmers charged with attempted murder for fighting back against police and army officers seeking to evict them from their land last year.
Landowner Doan Van Vuon and three male relatives are accused of using improvised explosive devices and shotguns and injuring seven security officers. Despite the alleged violence, their plight and willingness to stand up to the state has earned them folk-hero status in Vietnam, where anger at land seizures is one of the main sources of dissent against one-party rule.
“No one wanted to cause such a mess,” said Mr. Vuon’s wife, Nguyen Thi Thuong. “But we had to resist. We had no other way but fighting back for what rightfully belongs to us.”
The government has admitted making mistakes in the family’s well-publicized case and has allowed Mr. Vuon’s relatives to stay on the property, but it also has been stepping up prosecutions of those who oppose its grip on power.
Pham Hong Son, a well-known dissident and former political prisoner, led protesters who were stopped around 100 meters from the courtroom.
“I always support people who are suffering injustice,” he said. “This is an example of this.”
The four defendants have been in detention, unable to meet with their families, since soon after the Jan. 5, 2012, incident. Ms. Thuong and the wife of a second male suspect face lesser charges of assault.
The trial, closed to the public and with limited media access, is expected to last four days.
Inside the courtroom, a few reporters were given access to the proceedings via a closed-circuit feed of the trial that can be stopped when testimony becomes sensitive—giving authorities control over what is reported.
Under cross-examination, Mr. Vuon told the court he had constructed the improvised explosive devices and shotguns made from iron pipes to resist the police and army who came to evict them from their houses.
“The eviction decision was illegal. I was pushed into a corner and I had no other way,” he said. He added that the weapons and mines were intended to give police “a warning so they will realize it was dangerous. I didn’t intend to hurt the eviction forces.”
Members of the Vuon family say they were given 41 hectares of typhoon-damaged swampland by authorities in 1993. They built a fish and prawn business, only to have authorities return in 2009 to say they wanted the land back—without compensation.
“All of my extended family members worked on the shrimp farm and it was the only source of income for us,” said Ms. Thuong, who spoke with the Associated Press Monday evening at their home in Vinh Quang village, about 30 kilometers from Haiphong.
Disputes between farmers and authorities often break out in Vietnam, where the state owns all land but gives citizens the right to use it. The Vuon case stands out because the family fought back in such spectacular fashion, and because the injustice was perceived to be especially grave.
Vietnamese authorities are allowed to seize land for national security or defense, economic development or the public interest. In some cases, that translates into roads and bridges, or into industrial parks that bring jobs to the poor. But in an increasing number of cases, it means grabbing fish farms or rice paddies for golf courses and resorts only accessible to the rich.
The Vuon family’s resistance set the Internet alight in Vietnam, where an increasing number of citizens find uncensored news and comment. After a few days, state media also reported the story sympathetically, uncovering details that contradicted initial reporting.
The government was put on the defensive. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung ruled that the eviction was illegal and called for punishment for those who ordered the destruction of the family’s house.
More than 50 officials in Haiphong have been disciplined, according to state-media reports. Five are due to stand trial next week on charges of destroying the house.
With the men of the family in jail, Ms. Thuong and the wife of a second suspect, Pham Thi Bau, have had to take on more responsibility. They moved into the shack, now home to three adults and four children, a month after the eviction.
They have been unmolested by authorities since Prime Minister Dung’s order, though the status of their land is still unclear. They have also begun small-scale fish farming again.
The shack is perched on a strip of land between ponds that stretch for hundreds of meters. Flying above it: a Vietnamese flag.
“We have the flag up to keep in our mind that we will be protected by the law,” Ms. Bau said.