|Phạm Trung Kiên, former secretary to incumbent deputy health minister Đỗ Xuân Tuyên, standing on trial. — VNA/VNS Photo Phạm Kiên|
HÀ NỘI — The trial into the high-profile corruption case concerning repatriation flights for Vietnamese citizens overseas during the height of the COVID-19 border lockdown continued its fifth day on Monday, as the Hà Nội People’s Procuracy listed its recommended sentences against the 54 accused.
The trial was postponed for a few hours in the morning as the lawyers for the defendants updated the amount of ill-gotten money that the defendants have paid back.
Among the 21 on trial for receiving bribes, the Procuracy sought the death penalty – the harshest sentence in the case – against Phạm Trung Kiên, former secretary to incumbent deputy health minister Đỗ Xuân Tuyên.
Kiên was said to have received 253 bribes worth VNĐ42.6 billion (US$1.8 million), the most of any defendant in the case, and has paid back in redress about a third of the total, or VNĐ15 billion. He was ordered to pay back the entire amount he had taken.
The Procuracy determined that Kiên was tasked with receiving documents and submitting them to the Deputy Minister of Health for approval, as well as signing documents related to providing opinions on the approval of flights as proposed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, organisations, and individuals, which the defendant turned into an opportunity to make money.
For the same crime, two senior leaders of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – deputy minister Tô Anh Dũng and head of the consular department Nguyễn Thị Hương Lan – were asked to be jailed for 12 to 13 years and 18 to 19 years, respectively, while 19 to 20 years was sought for Vũ Anh Tuấn, a former official of the Immigration Department.
The Procuracy sought sentences of 2 to 20 years against 17 others that were also charged with receiving bribes, including Nguyễn Quang Linh, former assistant to the Deputy Prime Minister (7 to 8 years), and Nguyễn Thanh Hải, former international relations specialist to the Government’s Office (7 to 8 years).
Four defendants were charged with abusing their power while performing official duties. The representative of the Hà Nội Procuracy requested a sentence of 5 to 6 years for former Ambassador of Việt Nam to Malaysia Trần Việt Thái, 4 to 5 years for defendants Nguyễn Lê Ngọc Anh and Nguyễn Hoàng Linh – both former officials of the embassy, and 2 to 3 years for defendant Đặng Minh Phương, a former official of the embassy.
The 23 defendants charged with bribery have been recommended to receive sentences ranging from 12 months of suspended imprisonment to 12 years of imprisonment.
The four defendants in the intermediary bribery group have been proposed to receive sentences ranging from 2 to 7 years.
The indictment stressed that this is a particularly serious and complex case. The defendants' criminal behaviour involved accepting bribes and abusing their power while performing their official duties, taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to commit their crimes.
The criminal acts occurred in various ministries, sectors, and localities, and the charges against the defendants mainly “belong to the category of extremely serious crimes, which are particularly dangerous to society.”
The defendants who accepted bribes are individuals who hold high positions of power in State agencies.
After committing their criminal acts, they showed signs of collusion by making false statements to cover up their wrongdoings and even exerted influence and sought help to escape prosecution when the investigation into the scandal got underway, according to the indictment.
“To date, some defendants have not been completely truthful in their statements and have not admitted to their criminal acts.”
The indictment highlights that the Party's and the State's policy of organising more than 1,000 flights to bring back over 200,000 citizens from 62 countries and territories was a demonstration of compassionate policy by the country, underlining the meaningful and noble purpose of these flights.
However, this noble policy was tarnished by a number of corrupt officials, which “damaged the credibility of our country with our people and international friends,” reads the indictment.
Some defendants who accepted bribes have exploited people’s safety as an opportunity to make money for themselves.
Specifically, these defendants were said to have created difficulties and established a mechanism for representatives of businesses to pay bribes in order to obtain flight permits.
Therefore, severe and appropriate punishment is needed, corresponding to the nature and severity of the defendants' criminal behaviour.
However, according to the Prosecutor's Office, some mitigation of the punishment for the defendants should also be considered.
At the time of the pandemic outbreak, the process of organising flights to bring citizens back to the country was both fast and complicated, with no clear regulations on procedures, which was a loophole that the defendants took advantage of.
Some defendants did not actively demand money but committed their crimes due to being unable to resist temptation, the indictment noted.
"Greasing the wheels"
Starting from April 2020, the Vietnamese Government began allowing rescue flights to bring citizens back home, and people only had to pay for their airfare and not for the quarantine expenses.
Later, there were also combo flights, where citizens voluntarily paid the entire flight and quarantine fees.
From early 2020 to mid-2021, authorities approved and organised more than 1,000 flights, bringing back over 200,000 citizens from 62 countries and territories.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs alone proposed 772 flights to bring citizens back, including 400 rescue flights and 372 combo flights.
During the approval process for these flights, investigation agencies found that to "grease the wheels," a group of 20 businesses with over 100 legal entities raised airfare prices and added many additional expenses for customers wanting to return to Việt Nam during the pandemic.
In the process of approving these flights and quarantine arrangements in localities, from September 2020 to December 2022, 25 individuals took advantage of their positions, power, and assigned tasks to receive a total of nearly VNĐ165 billion ($6.9 million) in bribes, and abused their power while performing official duties, causing losses of over VNĐ10 billion. — VNS