No compensation for victims of Covid flight bribery

By Thanh Lam, Pham Du   July 29, 2023 | 07:00 pm PT
No compensation for victims of Covid flight bribery
A Vietnamese carrying a baby returns to Vietnam on a Covid-19 repatriation flight in August 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh
Despite having paid dozens of millions of dong for Covid-19 repatriation flight tickets that were inflated by bribery, passengers have no legal channel for compensation.

Hong Hanh, 25, from the northern province of Bac Ninh, was one of over 93,000 citizens returning to Vietnam on 372 repatriation flights amid the Covid-19 pandemic. When the coronavirus crisis was raging in 2021, Hanh was stuck in Japan.

Hanh said she was an illegal manual laborer at a food factory in Aichi, earning around VND25-30 million ($1,055-1,266) a month.

"Most of my income, I sent it back home," she said.

In April 2021, when Japan was recording around 1,000 new Covid cases a day, economic activities began to slow down. Hanh lost her job, and without any savings left, she took the last of her money to purchase a ticket to Osaka to stay with a relative, before going into a pagoda for refuge.

"At that time, the people around me were all pregnant women and the sick," she recalled. Hanh was also two months pregnant then, frequently worrying that she would never make it back to Vietnam.

She sent three emails to the Vietnamese embassy requesting a flight back home, but there was no reply. After spending three months waiting, Hanh and a group of her compatriots traveled to the embassy for support. She carried with her a handwritten sign, saying "I'm pregnant, please let me go back home."

In August 2021, in the fifth month of her pregnancy, Hanh finally received an email from the embassy. Ticket prices were three times higher than usual, but Hanh believed that as long as she could get back to Vietnam, she and her unborn child would live. Her parents then sent her VND20 million from Vietnam to Japan and she used it all to buy her ticket back home.

Duc Trung, from Hanoi, was studying abroad in Japan at the time. He said he had to wait twice as long for his flight, and his ticket was 2.5 times more expensive than Hanh's.

"Time was dragging its feet. I didn’t know it would be the last time ever seeing some of my friends," he said.

After sending three emails to the embassy without reply, like dozens of thousands of other Vietnamese in Japan, Trung said he had no choice but to stay by the phone and look out for third parties to purchase tickets. But even then, he said it was a gamble.

"A flight could be cancelled at any time, even after you had paid VND50 or 70 million. If it was delayed, you wouldn’t be able to get the money back. But in that situation, we were willing to take any risk. Our only hope was to come home," he said.

In May 2021, Trung managed to buy his ticket, and with 14 days of quarantine included, it cost VND54 million in total.

"It's not like I did not realize that it was very expensive. But at that time, being able to go home was already a blessing," he said.

The Hanoi People's Court on Friday ended an 18-day trial with four life sentences, 30 jail sentences of up to 16 years, and 10 suspended sentences for the high-profile Covid-19 repatriation flight bribery scandal. Among those who were sentenced were former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs To Anh Dung, former vice director of the Hanoi Police Department Nguyen Anh Tuan and business owners who provided the bribes to get flights approved.

For passengers who had to purchase expensive tickets to go back home, the court stated there was "no basis for consideration" regarding their right to compensation as there was no information on the costs of bringing citizens back to Vietnam, such as ticket prices, quarantine costs and other incurred fees.

The court said people who had purchased tickets should ask businesses to resolve the issue in accordance with the law.

"Those who illegally gained money from us have had to pay the price. Now, asking for the money back is no longer important," Hanh said on Friday, after knowing about the trial's verdict.

The court stated that the Vietnamese Embassy in Japan had arranged 57 flights to have citizens repatriated. For receiving bribes to get flights approved, former ambassador to Japan Vu Hong Nam was sentenced to 30 months in jail, while former Consul General of Vietnam in Osaka Nguyen Hong Ha was sentenced to four years in jail.

Vu Tien Vinh, a lawyer with the Bao An law firm in Hanoi, said cases involving bribes usually have no "victims" as the Penal Code deems the ones who give the bribes, the ones who receive the bribes and the ones who broker the bribes all criminals.

The purchase of tickets for the repatriation flights is considered a civil transaction, said Vinh. And since there is no local law that determines the price ceiling of international flights, there is no basis to determine if there had been a price violation, he added. This means that passengers will "find it difficult to get their money back or make other requests," he said.

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