Life term upheld for former minister in TV firm acquisition scandal

By Pham Du, Bao Ha   April 27, 2020 | 10:30 am PT
Life term upheld for former minister in TV firm acquisition scandal
Former Minister of Information and Communications Nguyen Bac Son stands in court in Hanoi, April 27, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Du.
Former minister Nguyen Bac Son has lost his plea for a lighter sentence in the case involving acquisition of a private TV firm.

The appeals court that wrapped up on Monday ruled that the court of first instance had already taken extenuating circumstances into account when it awarded the former minister of information and communications a life sentence.

But it handed out reduced sentences for eight other defendants in the case.

Son, 67, had asked the court to review the charges and punishment after he was given a life sentence in December for accepting $3 million in bribes to push for the illegal acquisition of private pay TV firm Audio Visual Global (AVG) by state-owned telecom giant MobiFone.

Son had said the sentence was "very severe" and asked for a lighter sentence given his old age as well as considerable contributions in the army and other achievements in his career.

The court of first instance had rejected the death sentence recommended by the prosecution, saying Son's family had returned the $3 million on his behalf to the state budget.

The appeals court maintained Monday that the court of first instance had already given due consideration to extenuating circumstances for the former minister including the return of the money accepted as bribes, his previous service and his status as a war veteran.

The judges noted that Son had also influenced Pham Nhat Vu, former chairman of AVG, to compensate the damages recorded in the case, but found that this was not a reason to reduce the sentence for Son because he had not reported it fully during the investigation.

They said that Le Nam Tra, former chairman of MobiFone was under the control and direction of Son, and this had resulted in Tra pushing other leaders of MobiFone to buy AVG.

The appeals court said the court of first instance had not considered all the circumstances behind Tra’s actions and reduced his sentence on one charge, "violating regulations on the management and use of public capital that led to serious consequences," from seven to four years. But it did not find reason to reduce the punishment for taking bribes, so Tra is to spend a total of 20 years in prison, down from 23 awarded earlier.

Phan Thi Hoa Mai and Ho Tuan, the two former deputy general directors of MobiFone had helped Tra, the judges said, but did not commit any self-serving act. They were also cooperative in making amends for damage done and had a good professional track record prior to their arrest. Therefore, they reduced the sentence for both Mai and Tuan from 30 months to 12 months each.

Former deputy general directors of MobiFone Pham Thi Phuong Anh, Nguyen Manh Hung and Nguyen Bao Long also had their sentences from 30 months to 12 months each because the earlier judgment did not issue sentences evenly, the appeals court judges said.

Nguyen Dang Nguyen, former deputy general director of MobiFone received the lightest punishment, having his two-year sentence commuted to a 12-month suspended sentence with probation. The judges said Nguyen knew about AVG's weak financial status as well as its prolonged business losses and how it was bought at a highly inflated price. He had protested against the decision and warned about it, the judges noted.

Another defendant in the case, Hoang Duy Quang, director of the northern branch of the Appraisal and Investment Consultancy Company Ltd. (AMAX), also got a reduced sentence, from three years to 14 months in prison.

The judges also upheld the decision of the earlier court not to seize the house of Nguyen Bac Son in Ly Nam De Street and that of former deputy minister and minister Truong Minh Tuan in Hao Nam Street, Hanoi. The defendants and their families were ordered to pay back their illicit earnings and had done so, the judges said. Son paid back VND66.4 billion (about $3 million); Tuan, VND4.45 billion ($190,000); Tra, VND55.6 billion ($2.37 million); and Hai, VND11.25 billion ($479,000).

Contrite, repentant

In his last minutes in court before the appeals court ruling was issued, former minister Son expressed regret and remorse for his actions. He said he felt relieved on speaking about the case to the investigators and noted that his family had paid back the exchequer the financial damage caused.

Son also said that he had "handed over all the properties that did not belong to" him. While he accepted the sentence given by the court, he said mercy should be shown to people who have shown regret and cooperation, and believed that people would forgive his mistakes.

"At the trial today, allow me to apologize to the leaders of the Party, the state and the people for my wrongdoings that have affected the reputation and the people's faith in the Party. Let me send a sincere apology to the Ministry of Information and Communications and the information and communications industry," Son said.

Son also noted that that it was a rare case in history because a huge amount of losses caused (nearly VND9 trillion or $383 million) was returned to the authorities in just three months. He said the accepting bribes was not a premeditated act.

He asked the judges to consider reducing the punishment for him and other defendants. They must be treated differently from others as they cooperated and compensated 100 percent of the financial damage caused, he said.

People with good backgrounds and excellent work performance must be assessed differently from repeat offenders with bad backgrounds, he said.

Tra of Mobifone also asked for leniency, saying he was the first person to turn himself in.

Six former deputy general directors of Mobifone asked the judges to consider awarding them suspended sentences and waive their punishment, as their roles were not prominent in the case and they had paid VND6.6 trillion ($284.4 million) in damages.

Phan Thi Hoa Mai asked the court for bail so she could with her newborn grandchild (a child of her daughter) and her son.

Quang of AMAX said he had committed a crime accidentally and requested a suspended sentence.

The trial at the appeals court began April 23.

No appeal

Of the 14 defendants at the trial of first instance, former deputy minister and minister of information and communications Truong Minh Tuan and former MobiFone general director Cao Duy Hai were sentenced to 14 years in prison and and AVG’s former chairman Pham Nhat Vu got three years.

Pham Dinh Trong, then head of enterprise management under the Ministry of Information and Communications, was given five years while Vo Van Manh, former general manager of AMAX, was given three years and six months.

These five defendants did not appeal their sentences.

ln 2015, telecom giant MobiFone, under the information ministry, wanted to invest in the pay TV sector. Son promoted the acquisition of AVG and pushed for the deal to be done before his tenure was up.

After five rounds of negotiations, under Son's directions, AVG and MobiFone reached an agreement on October 2, 2015 for the latter to acquire a 95 percent stake in the former.

MobiFone thus acquired a 95 percent stake at AVG for nearly VND8.9 trillion ($382.6 million), many times higher than AVG's real value, causing losses of nearly VND6.6 trillion ($284.4 million) to the state budget.

This was one of the major cases in Vietnam's corruption crackdown, which intensified since it was launched in 2017, snaring a number of high-ranking officials, top military officers and businesspeople.

Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, who has been spearheading the anti-corruption campaign, has repeatedly said that the fight would maintain its momentum and spare no one.

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