Vietnam arrests once-rising political star for wrongdoings at state energy giant

By Dien Luong   December 8, 2017 | 04:06 am PT
Vietnam arrests once-rising political star for wrongdoings at state energy giant
Dinh La Thang was arrested Friday for his wrongdoings at PetroVietnam, becoming the most high-profile political casualty of Vietnam's corruption crackdown that has riveted the nation. File photo
Dinh La Thang faces the music for his mismanagement at PetroVietnam and is the latest political casualty of the anti-graft move.

Vietnam has arrested a disgraced Communist Party official for his past wrongdoings at state energy giant PetroVietnam several years ago, making him the most high-profile political casualty of a corruption crackdown that has riveted the nation. 

Dinh La Thang, 57, was arrested after the legislative National Assembly stripped him of his lawmaker status, the Ministry of Public Security said late Friday. His Communist Party membership has also been suspended.

In Vietnam, sitting lawmakers are immune from prosecution.

The punishment handed down to him was the harshest to be meted out to a Politburo member in years, if not decades. 


Reporters surrounded the apartment building where Dinh La Thang lives on Friday evening. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Du

Thang’s political career was all but doomed last May when he was voted out of the then 19-member Politburo, the Party’s decision-making body, and later fired as the top leader of Ho Chi Minh City. Since then, he has been appointed to the post of vice head of the Central Economic Commission, which advises the Party on economic policies.

"Thang's arrest and prosecution have long been anticipated by Vietnam watchers given his removal from the Politburo in May and developments in other trials in which he is implicated," Le Hong Hiep, a Vietnamese research fellow at the Iseas Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said.

"As such, his arrest was just a matter of time," Hiep said.

Thang is charged with "deliberate violation of state regulations on economic management, causing serious consequences." He is held accountable for a series of “serious” violations and mismanagement at PetroVietnam. He served as the board chairman there from 2006 until 2011, when his political career took off as Minister of Transport in Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s cabinet.

The police say they are investigating two serious cases in particular.

In the first case, the Central Inspection Committee, the Party’s top watchdog, last April held Thang responsible for illegal business decisions, including violations involving an investment in the scandal-hit OceanBank.

The watchdog blamed Thang for an excessive stake purchase in OceanBank. PetroVietnam held a VND800 billion ($35 million) stake in the bank, but that was completely written off when the central bank took it over in 2015.

At the headline-grabbing OceanBank trial that concluded in September, the defense lawyer for Nguyen Xuan Son, who was PetroVietnam’s chairman from 2014 until his arrest in 2015, said his client had just been enforcing executive orders already sanctioned by Thang when the latter was the chairman of the state energy giant. Son was sentenced to death on charges of embezzlement, abuse of power and economic mismanagement.

The lawyer essentially argued that it was Thang that signed off on documents that authorized OceanBank to function as the de facto internal institution tasked with exclusively handling all financial transactions for PetroVietnam.

The second case involves financial wrongdoings and embezzlement at construction company PVC, a PetroVietnam subsidiary. Trinh Xuan Thanh, the former board chairman and general director of the company, is facing charges of embezzlement and violating state regulations on economic management, causing losses of around VND3.2 trillion ($147 million) at PVC. 

In early August, Thanh “turned himself in” after a 10-month international manhunt. His trial is scheduled for January.

Since May, Dinh La Thang's appearances in the media have been rare, but his name has remained a major talking point.

Named transport minister at the age of 51, Thang was considered young enough in Vietnam's political apparatus to be groomed for higher places.

In a country where the masses are always yearning for charismatic and stern leadership, Thang was catapulted into political stardom thanks to his soundbite-ready speeches and sometimes tough action.

After moving to Ho Chi Minh City, he continued to grab headlines through populist statements that promised to address problems such as corruption, crime, traffic and education.

Thang's arrest came two months after the Party sacked another high-ranking official, Nguyen Xuan Anh, and removed him from the Central Committee for misconduct, mismanagement and dishonesty when he was top leader of the central city of Da Nang.

"This is an indication of the intensification of Vietnam's anti-corruption campaign," Hiep, the Singapore-based analyst, said.

Thang and Anh have become the most prominent political casualties of Vietnam's sweeping corruption crackdown, which has been spearheaded by Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong and has netted scores of officials.

"The momentum of the anti-corruption campaign is likely to gather greater pace with the prosecution of Thang, especially if his trial leads to the investigation of other officials," Hiep said. 

"But targeting high-ranking officials only will not be enough to address the widespread corruption throughout the system," he said.

"There should be more fundamental political and legal changes to create effective, enduring and self-reinforcing mechanisms to prevent and eliminate corruption at all levels."

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