HANOI — A court in northern Vietnam has sentenced two shrimp farmers charged with attempted murder during a land seizure to five years in prison. The case has stoked debate over crucial land use reforms in the country.
On Friday, the Hai Phong People’s Court handed down the sentence to shrimp farmer Doan Van Vuon and his brother Doan Van Quy.
The Vuon clan made international headlines in early 2012 by using homemade weapons to resist police and soldiers during a land seizure. Seven officers were wounded.
Another brother and a nephew received three years and six months in jail, while Vuon’s wife, Doan Thi Phuong, was given an 18-month suspended sentence for opposing officers on duty. Quy’s wife received a 15-month suspended sentence for the same charge.
Their case attracted widespread public support, with many accusing local authorities of using heavy-handed tactics. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung announced an investigation and blamed the incident on the “bad management” of those in charge.
Lawyer Ha Huy Son, who defended popular blogger Nguyen Van Hai – better known as Dieu Cay – said he thought the indictment against Vuon was wrong. He said Vuon was not acting against officials carrying out their duty because those officials were acting on an illegal order.
In Vietnam, people can lease land, but the state retains control over it. Many farmers have 20-year leases issued by the government in 1993. The state can take the land back for development purposes, but critics say procedures for that are vague and vulnerable to corruption.
Vuon’s case was unusual because he said he had been given permission to use a certain area of land for a period of time less than the typical 20-year lease. When he was asked to move, he was offered no compensation, and when authorities came to take it by force, he and his family decided to fight back.
Nicholas Booth, policy advisor for rule of law and access to justice for the United Nations Development Program, says even when land is taken according to the legal principles to be used for industrial projects there are inadequate provisions for resettlement and compensation.
“Everybody agrees the current system of land disputes is not working. The National Assembly when discussing the Land Law they said there was something like 700,000 complaints about land cases in the last three years and 70 percent of them involved dissatisfaction with compensation,” he said.
Revisions to the Land Law were discussed last year and were scheduled to be passed by the National Assembly in May. However, the revised law is likely to be delayed for another year to allow further debate. Some observers said they were disappointed with the proposed changes, partly because they do not include an independent mechanism for defining compensation.
Next month parliamentarians are set to extend leases allocated in 1993.
Many people are using the Internet to show their support for Vuon, with avatars showing the farmer looking out from behind bars and scales of justice.
A video posted on Facebook shows a crowd of people in matching T-shirts standing on the side of the road holding posters. The caption says these are farmers who clashed with riot police in a protest over a land seizure in Hung Yen province.
Many supporters on their way to the court have been prevented from entering Hai Phong city.
It is not just empathetic farmers who are watching the outcome of the trial, said retired diplomat David Brown.
“I have the sense that this trial is going to be a very important signal as to whether the folks who are saying if we’re going to retain the trust of the people, particularly the farmers, we’ve got to deal with this in a way that the public will be satisfied with the outcome,” he said.
On Monday, five officials charged with knocking down Vuon’s house will also stand trial in Hai Phong, including the former chairman of the district’s People’s Committee. Observers say the two trials are a chance for the government to admit responsibility while showing farmers acts of violence against the state will be punished.
HAIPHONG, Vietnam—Two Vietnamese fish farmers who laid mines and fired homemade guns at police attempting to evict them were convicted and sentenced to five years in prison Friday in a case that has cast a spotlight on the contentious issue of land rights in the one-party Communist state.
Doan Van Vuon, a 50-year-old army veteran, became an underground folk hero when he resisted a government land grab in January 2012.
Mr. Vuon and his brother, Doan Van Quy, and other members of their family had established a thriving fish and prawn farm on 41 hectares, or 101 acres, of swampland they were given in 1993 near the bustling port city of Haiphong, 60 miles east of Hanoi. In 2007, authorities informed the family that they wanted the land back—an increasingly common occurrence in fast-growing Vietnam—without offering compensation.
Instead of quietly handing the land back, family members led by Mr. Vuon set up a perimeter around the lot, laying land mines and fashioning homemade guns to cement their claim to the farm. When a team of police and army troops moved in to evict the family, a gunbattle began in which six security officials were injured. Mr. Vuon and three members of his family were arrested.
“I was pushed into a corner and I had no other way,” Mr. Vuon told the court. He said he only intended to scare security officials rather than harm them.
Judge Pham Duc Tuyen on Friday sentenced Mr. Vuon and Mr. Quy to five years in prison for attempted murder, while another brother and a nephew were sentenced to two years and 3½ years in prison. The judge said the family’s actions were dangerous and had a “bad impact on the social order and social management of Haiphong City in particular and the country as a whole.”
Defense lawyer Nguyen Viet Hung said that he wasn’t given enough time to make his case and the family plans to appeal the verdict.
The showdown last year in Haiphong caused uproar in Vietnam, where the state owns all the land and assigns rights to use it. Disputes are common. Farmers often protest against government moves to force them off their land to build industrial parks or tourism developments.
The problem is likely to grow worse in the coming years as a number of land-use agreements, which often expire after 20 years, begin to lapse. Carlyle Thayer, a professor at Australia’s University of New South Wales, has said that the lack of transparency in how the government decides who gets what land is an additional challenge.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch, said that the growing unrest over land seizures was a warning sign to the Vietnamese authorities.
“The issue of widespread, arbitrary land seizures by corrupt officials or without much due process and just compensation is what really made this trial resonate in the minds of ordinary Vietnamese people,” he said.
Few land rows have generated as much heat as the standoff at Mr. Vuon’s fish farm. Bloggers quickly seized on it as evidence of heavy-handed government rule, and news of the incident quickly spread on the Internet, which many Vietnamese use to get news and opinions that are otherwise suppressed or not reported by government-run media.
Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung responded by declaring the eviction illegal, and state media reports said that more than 50 officials in Haiphong have been disciplined or reprimanded for their role in the raid. Several are being prosecuted for unlawfully destroying Mr. Vuon’s home.
Dozens of protesters attempted to attend their trial to show support for the family, but were prevented by police from approaching the court building. Authorities also gave journalists limited access to the trial.
Mr. Quy’s wife, Pham Thi Bau, said family members are now living in tents on their land. She said the family had borrowed $500,000 from relatives and friends to invest in the fish-farm project, building dikes to hold back the ocean and constructing several houses for the extended family members who live in the compound.
When the family received the eviction notice in 2007, they stopped investing in the property with only half of the loan repaid, she said.
“If there was no eviction notice, we could have made money, we could have paid off the loans,” Ms. Bau said. The fish business was earning the family a profit of about $30,000 a year.
She said the family will now wait to appeal Friday’s convictions.
“If there is no justice I will lose my trust in the Party and the government,” Ms. Bau said.
Vietnam: Farmers Sentenced to Prison for Resisting Eviction From Their Land
A court sentenced a family of four Vietnamese fish farmers to prison terms of two to five years on Friday after finding them guilty of attempted murder for fighting back against a state eviction squad with homemade guns and land mines last year.
The defendants, led by Doan Van Vuon, left, have been lauded on the Internet for defending their land near Haiphong. Seven security officers sustained minor injuries in the confrontation. Land grabs by corrupt officials are the leading source of public anger toward the one-party government in Vietnam.
After an investigation, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung ruled that the eviction was illegal, and ordered the officials who had carried it out to be punished. Members of Doan Van Vuon’s family say the authorities gave them the 101 acres in 1993, when it was swampland. They transformed it into a fish and prawn business. In 2009, the authorities said they wanted the land back and did not offer the family compensation. Since the prime minister’s order declaring the eviction illegal, the family has been allowed to keep the land.