'I turned myself in': Vietnam's former oil exec confesses on state television

By Staff reporters   August 3, 2017 | 06:02 am PT
His confession dovetails with Vietnam's official line on why he returned, but it remains unclear how he did so.

A former oil executive accused of financial malfeasance appeared on Vietnam's state television on Thursday evening, confirming he had turned himself in and saying he needed to return to "face the truth".

The confession of Trinh Xuan Thanh, the former chairman and CEO of a subsidiary of national oil and gas giant PetroVietnam, was made public after Germany accused Vietnam of kidnapping him in Berlin. It dovetailed with Vietnam's official explanation for his return to the country; but it remains unclear how he did so.

Looking tired in a prime-time evening news bulletin on Vietnam Television, Thanh said: “It was frivolous of me to go into exile, I wasn't thinking maturely." 

"While in hiding, I realized I needed to return to face the truth," Thanh said, his voice hardly audible. "I needed to return to meet the people, especially the leaders, to admit my wrongdoings.”

The news bulletin also showed what appeared to be Thanh's handwritten “confession letter” dated July 31, the day the Ministry of Public Security announced he had turned himself in after a 10-month international manhunt.

“I’m worried and afraid following the conclusion of my violations and I have to take responsibility as the key person behind PVC’s losses," Thanh purportedly wrote, using the abbreviation for PetroVietnam Construction JSC.

"Since I was afraid and didn’t think maturely, I decided to go into hiding in Germany. During that time, my life was precarious and filled with fear. Following family and friends’ advice, I returned to Vietnam and turned myself in to investigators to be granted clemency from the [Communist] Party, the Government and the law,” the letter read.

The German government on Wednesday accused Vietnam of “kidnapping” Thanh in Berlin to bring him back to Vietnam, a move it considered an “unprecedented” breach of German and international law. Germany on Wednesday also ordered a Vietnamese embassy attache to leave the country within 48 hours.

Vietnam's Foreign Ministry on Thursday said it regretted to learn about the accusations, saying Hanoi respects and wants to develop a strategic relationship with Berlin.

Thanh, 51, vanished in August last year on supposed sick leave after being held accountable for losses of around VND3.2 trillion ($147 million) at PetroVietnam Construction JSC (PVC). He served as general director of the company from late 2007, and became chairman two years later. Vietnam issued an international arrest warrant for him in September 2016.

Government inspectors found that Thanh and his team, starting in 2009, had launched a number of ventures with different companies, but few had proven successful. Most of their business projects ended up being delayed or closed down.

After his stint at PetroVietnam Construction JSC, Thanh climbed the political ladder with an apparently successful track record, holding various government positions including deputy chief of staff at the Ministry of Industry and Trade, before taking his last post as vice mayor in the Mekong Delta province of Hau Giang.

The infamous official first caught media attention in June 2016 for driving a $230,000 Lexus with a government license plate in a country whose public officials are supposed to embrace austerity and where the average annual income was around $2,200 last year. The scandal caused an uproar over the use of public money, prompting Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong to order a probe into his political career.

Trong reiterated in April that Vietnam would try to arrest Thanh “by any means”.

The investigation into Thanh’s wrongdoings has ensnared scores of government officials and corporate executives.

Chief among them was Dinh La Thang, who was removed from the Communist Party's elite Politburo, the group at the pinnacle of Vietnamese power, in May. He was later fired from his position as leader of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s biggest city and commercial hub. Thang was held accountable for serious” violations and mismanagement during his tenure as PetroVietnam's board chairman from 2009 until 2011.

Thang's punishment was extremely rare and the heaviest handed down to a Politburo member in years, if not decades.

“The PetroVietnam affair is a major corruption scandal,” Carl Thayer, a veteran Australia-based expert, said.

“In Thanh’s case the government wanted to go after the ‘big fish’ and dispel any notion that he was given lenient treatment because he went overseas,” he said. “The credibility of the government’s anti-corruption drive was on the line.”

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