A court in northern Vietnam on Friday sentenced a former soldier-turned farmer and his family members up to five years in prison for putting up an armed fight against security forces who evicted them from their farm in a case highlighting public resentment over government land grabs.
The Hai Phong People’s Court delivered unexpectedly “lenient” sentences to fish farmer Doan Van Vuon, his two brothers and a nephew, who used landmines and homemade shotguns to ward off authorities sent to repossess their farm in January 2012.
They faced attempted murder charges after four policemen and two soldiers suffered serious injuries during the clash.
According to Vietnamese law, a conviction of attempted murder carries a minimum sentence of 12 years in prison and a maximum of the death penalty.
Instead, Vuon, 50, received a five-year jail term along with his brother Doan Van Quy, while a third brother Doan Van Sinh received 3 ½ years and Sinh’s son Doan Van Ve was handed a two-year sentence.
Vuon’s wife Nguyen Thi Thuong and Quy’s wife Pham Thi Bau Hien received suspended sentences of 1 ¼ years and 1 ½ years for protesting during the eviction.
Court President Pham Duc Tuyen said after a four-day trial that the defendants had “disrespected the law and endangered people’s lives.”
But he also admitted that the eviction in Hai Phong’s Tien Lang district was “not in accordance with the law,” adding that the state had decided on lighter sentences based on its “lenient and humanitarian policy, contributing to stabilizing the political situation in the area.”
Tuyen said that government prosecutors, who sought a lenient punishment for Vuon and the others, had taken public opinion into account in deciding the case, which involved the “sensitive and complicated matter of the land law.”
Vuon had received widespread support in Vietnam, where land rights are a contentious issue, and became known as a sort of folk hero. Vietnamese authorities can seize land for vaguely defined matters of “public interest,” though that can also lead to local officials cashing in on lucrative development projects at the expense of poor farmers.
Even Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung termed the eviction “illegal” in February last year and vowed to prosecute corrupt local leaders.
Members of Vuon’s family say they were given 41 hectares (100 acres) of land by authorities in 1993 and built it from a nearly worthless lagoon into a successful seafood farm. In 2009, authorities decided to take the land back without offering compensation.
Lawyers for the defendants expressed disappointment with the verdict Friday, saying that the family should not have faced charges of attempted murder for trying to defend their property.
“My opinion is that their action was an attempt to protect their assets—their living place … However, this was not mentioned in the verdict,” said attorney Nguyen Viet Hung.
Vuon, claiming that the eviction decision was illegal, told the court that he used the weapons to give police “a warning so they will realize it was dangerous. I didn’t intend to hurt the eviction forces.”
“At the beginning, I hoped they would have a more appropriate verdict … based on what happened at the trial, this verdict is not what the family expected and I think they will appeal,” Hung said.
Another attorney for the family, Tran Dinh Trien, said that it is the court’s responsibility to deliver a verdict that “satisfies both the party and the people.”
“The appropriate verdict should be ‘attempted murder due to self-defense.’ Even Vuon admitted to that and said he would accept that,” Trien said.
He said that Thuong and Hien should also not have faced charges of “resisting public officers on duty” because the authorities were not performing an appropriate duty when they went to evict Vuon and his family.
“[The authorities] did consider their own wrongdoing, but they did not dare to accept the truth,” Trien said.
“They still had to hand out this verdict to warn the people. The message is that, whatever happened, the people still have to accept the decision first and then follow petition procedures later, to avoid a situation that might adversely affect the public order,” he said.
“They are worried about consequences—that is why they stuck with this charge to warn other people not to follow their example.”
Reported by Thanh Truc and Gia Minh for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.