Hanoi's high-profile land dispute comes under scrutiny after immunity pledge

By VnExpress   June 13, 2017 | 09:30 pm GMT+7
Hanoi's high-profile land dispute comes under scrutiny after immunity pledge
A police officer thanks villagers after the hostages, who were originally held by the villagers in a land dispute, were released in Dong Tam, outside Hanoi, Vietnam on April 22, 2017. Photo by Reuters

The investigation will focus on  the illegal detention of 38 officials and deliberate vandalism committed by disgruntled villagers.

Police in Hanoi on Tuesday launched a criminal probe into a high-profile land dispute that rocked Vietnam in April and epitomized tensions over land-use rights in the country.

The investigation will focus on what authorities call the illegal detention of 38 officials, many of them police officers, and deliberate vandalism committed by disgruntled villagers after a standoff in Dong Tam Village, 40km (25 miles) south of the capital.

The probe has been launched after assurances made by Mayor Nguyen Duc Chung while he was trying to negotiate the release of the hostages that no villagers would be prosecuted.

It is not immediately clear if this latest criminal investigation means authorities have broken that promise.

Under Vietnam’s penal code, anyone found guilty of illegal detention can face up to five years in prison, while intentional vandalism is punishable by up to a life sentence.

In mid-April, Hanoi police detained four people from Dong Tam Village for what authorities called breaking land-use regulations.

Disgruntled villagers then took 38 police officers and government officials hostage in a communal house.

According to the authorities, the case has lingered for years and become heated since February this year, when military-owned telecoms giant Viettel started work to build an airport in the disputed area.

Some locals have been fighting for what they believe is their agricultural land, but officials have said the land belongs to the military.

According to disgruntled protesters, if the land had been transferred to the military at some point, the residents should have been properly informed. They said in such a case, locals would have followed the order.

The standoff was not completely resolved until a week later, when Chung, the chairman of Hanoi's People's Committee, visited the village to talk locals into releasing the final 20 officials. Several days earlier, the villagers had already released fifteen of the officials and another three managed to escape.

After speaking with villagers and listening to their complaints, Chung promised a thorough investigation into the dispute and a response within 45 days. He also signed a handwritten letter stating that none of the protesters would be prosecuted for holding the officials hostage.

Vietnam does not technically allow private land ownership but grants land-use rights, which confer the same rights as a freehold certificate.

Land grievances remain a major source of concern in Vietnam. In 2012, they accounted for 70 percent of all complaints lodged against the government, according to a parliamentary report.

Tuesday's investigation highlighted how the authorities are tiptoeing around this minefield, analysts say.

"Government has to be careful on land issues," Zachary Abuza, a Washington-based analyst, said. "I truly can't think of a single issue that is more sensitive and pits them against the people."