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.