Health ministry secretary 'wanted to die' after role in Covid repatriation scandal

By Thanh Lam, Pham Du   July 14, 2023 | 12:03 am PT
Health ministry secretary 'wanted to die' after role in Covid repatriation scandal
Pham Trung Kien, former secretary to the deputy minister of health, is escorted by the police to the Hanoi People's Court, July 14, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh
A former secretary of the deputy health minister involved in the Covid-19 repatriation flight scandal said he "wanted to die" after finding out the sentences he could pay for his crimes.

Pham Trung Kien, former secretary to the deputy minister of health, began his high-profile trial on Friday, regarding the Covid-19 repatriation flight scandal.

A further 53 people, including former deputy foreign minister To Anh Dung, are also standing trial for giving and receiving bribes, and fraud. The trial opened on Tuesday and is expected to last for a month.

Kien said he had to be hospitalized for a long time in early 2022 due to Covid-19, and on being discharged learned that police were investigating him for violations regarding repatriation flights.

He was accused of receiving 253 bribes over 11 months, worth a total of VND42.6 billion ($1.8 million), from 18 business representatives, the largest amount of bribes received among all 54 accused.

He has admitted to receiving the bribes, but refuted accusations that he "threatened" businesses and individuals, saying they voluntarily gave him the money and he merely accepted.

On learning that receiving bribes could result in 20 years in prison or even death, Kien said he no longer wanted to live and started suffering from mental health problems.

"I was scared, and I wanted to die. I tried to die to escape from the pressure. I later went to the Bach Mai Hospital to be treated for mental illness," he told the court.

Kien said he gave some of the money to his wife, while VND10 billion was given to an uncle as a loan to invest in land.

Dao Minh Duong, chairman of the VijaSun company, contradicted Kien’s statement and said he was "scolded" by Kien, who requested that "a few million dong per passenger" to be paid.

Duong said at the trial that when he asked to lower the price, Kien said he wanted VND150 million per repatriation flight, and the money could be given either to him or Vu Anh Tuan, deputy head of the staff division of the immigration management department under the Ministry of Public Security.

When asked by lawyers why he decided to give the money to Kien, Duong said he was "forced to" by Kien.

Duong said VijaSun was approved to organize 17 flights and had to spend VND150 million for each flight, and was asked transfer the money before the flights were approved.

In April 2020, the government organized flights to bring back Vietnamese citizens stranded abroad during the pandemic. Businesses that wanted to operate the flights had to receive approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs after evaluation by several other ministries.

In 2020 and 2021, over 1,000 flights brought back over 200,000 people home from 62 countries and territories.

The foreign ministry recommended that the government should approve 772 flights. To "smooth the process," 20 businesses and over 100 other legal entities hiked ticket prices.

Police said 21 officials pocketed VND170 billion ($7.18 million) in bribes from over 100 firms to organize repatriation flights during the pandemic.

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