April 5, 2013, 12:57 p.m. ET – By JAMES HOOKWAY And NGUYEN ANH THU
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 dykes 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.