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Malaysia frees 37 Vietnamese fishermen after 3-month detention

By Nguyen Dong   September 22, 2022 | 06:05 pm PT
Malaysia frees 37 Vietnamese fishermen after 3-month detention
Fisheman Nguyen Van Thanh (R) reunites with his children, wife and mother at Da Nang airport, September 22, 2022. Photo by VnExpresws/Nguyen Dong
Malaysian police handed over 37 fishermen from Quang Nam Province they had detained for more than three months to Vietnamese authorities Thursday night.

They were put on flights from Kinabalu through Kuala Lumpur and HCMC to Da Nang, where they arrived at 10 p.m.

The reunion with their loved ones after five months–they had set sail on April 5–was teary.

Some family members could not wait and flew to HCMC to see them a few hours sooner.

Tran Van Viet, 31, one of the released men, said he was preparing fishing tools on June 11 when he noticed a Malaysian Coast Guard ship following them with its siren sounding.

His boat crew panicked, the pilot tried to flee and others tried to call for help from other fishermen via the radio, but the Malaysian ship rammed and almost sank them.

All 42 fishermen were arrested.

Five of them were released after a month on health grounds while the remaining 37 were held.

"I did not think I would live," Viet said.

"Every second, every minute of the past three months we yearned to reunite with our families."

The Vietnamese vessel was seized at the Tanjung Simpang Mengayau Kudat area with Malaysian authorities saying it violated their fishery regulations.

But a statement by the Quang Nam People’s Committee on June 29 said its border guards’ surveillance system showed the boat had been nine nautical miles from a reef in Vietnam’s Spratly Islands.

Surveillance data from Quang Nam’s agriculture department showed that between April 25 and June 11, the ship was operating within Vietnam’s legal fishing areas.

Tran Van Manh, 41, the captain, who has never been arrested or otherwise punished for trespassing in his 13 years at the job, said: "We followed the map, we were not clear if we intruded into [Malaysian] territory."

Manh was fined 150,000 ringgit ($32,800) by a court in Malaysia on August 30, and the rest of the crew had to pay 20,000 RM each. They paid after the trial and it took 20 days for them to be sent home.

Captain Tran Van Manh arrives at Da Nang airport, September 22, 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Dong

Captain Tran Van Manh arrives at Da Nang airport, September 22, 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Dong

Besides the penalties, the fishermen's families also had to pay for lawyers. The 37 families said they had paid more than VND5 billion ($210,800) in all.

Manh's ship worth more than VND6 billion was also seized.

Legal expert Hoang Viet said Vietnam and Malaysia have demarcated their continental shelves but not exclusive economic zones.

"Any conflict can thus only be solved via diplomatic efforts because there's no third party at sea. Normally, when a country's Coast Guard arrests Vietnamese fishermen, their courts will deal with them according to local law."

He said Vietnam should quickly establish clear boundaries with other countries in overlapping areas and initiate joint patrols.

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