Vietnam's 8-year corruption crusade turns the tide

By Hoang Thuy, Viet Tuan   December 14, 2020 | 04:51 pm PT
Vietnam's 8-year corruption crusade turns the tide
Vietnamese policemen stand guard outside a courtroom hearing a trial involving former Minister of Transport Dinh La Thang, Hanoi, Vietnam, January 9, 2018. Photo by Reuters/Kham.
A hands-on, take-no-prisoners approach by top echelons of the Communist Party has been a decisive factor in the success of Vietnam’s eight-year corruption fight.

This was highlighted by senior officials in talks with VnExpress that identified several salient features and factors marking the headway made by the nation’s corruption fight since 2013.

A total of 133 cases and 94 incidents of serious corruption and economic violations were directly handled by Vietnam's top anti-corruption agency.

After decades of following anti-corruption efforts in Vietnam, Vu Quoc Hung, former standing vice chairman of the Communist Party's Central Inspection Committee, said that the past eight years, especially the term of the Party's 12th National Congress, was a period of "turning the tide."

"That turn is reflected in specific numbers and actions," Hung said, citing statistics from the Commission for Internal Affairs of the Party Central Committee.

Since 2013, agencies across the country have investigated, prosecuted and tried over 11,700 cases of corruption, abuse of power and economic violations.

In particular, the Central Steering Committee on Anti-corruption monitored over 800 cases and incidents, including directly monitoring and guiding 133 cases and 94 incidents of corruption and economic violations that were serious, complex and garnered a lot of public attention.

Of these, 86 cases were tried with 814 top level defendants, including one member of the party's Politburo, seven members and former members of the Party Central Committee, four ministers and former ministers, and seven generals in the armed forces.

'Forbidden' zones breached

Hung said many of the cases and incidents had long been considered to be in "forbidden, sensitive" zones.

Several had happened years ago or involved top officials, but law-enforcement and judicial agencies have still managed to investigate and bring them to trial, like the cases involving former Politburo member Dinh La Thang, the $420 mln online gambling case in Phu Tho Province involving top cops at the Ministry of Public Security, the AVG acquisition case involving two ministers of Information and Communication, and the land management case involving former colonel Dinh Ngoc He.

Hung said one of the most impressive cases was the one in which state-owned telecom giant MobiFone acquired a 95 percent stake at private pay TV firm AVG. This case was the first time two former ministers and former members of the Central Committee were publicly tried for receiving bribes and a business leader in the private sector was tried for giving bribes. The case also saw a 100 percent recovery rate of lost assets, with over VND8 trillion ($345.91 million) recovered.

'Milestone' factor

Dinh Van Minh, head of the Government Inspectorate's Legal Department, said that an important "milestone" that helped generate the strong changes in recent years was the establishment of the Central Steering Committee for Anti-corruption headed by Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong in February 2013.

Before 2013, Vietnam had a Central Steering Committee for Anti-corruption headed by the prime minister. However, Minh said the committee switching to the direct leadership of the party was "the most important factor leading to the recent results."

"The party is the leading force of the state and society, so the General Secretary and the Politburo directly leading anti-corruption efforts shows a very high political determination and helps facilitate the execution of related tasks," Minh said.

Hung concurred, recalling that during his time in office before 2006, there was no central steering committee for anti-corruption to monitor and direct throughout the handling of major cases. Each major case had its own steering committee headed by either the head or deputy head of the Central Committee's Commission for Internal Affairs.

"A limitation of that period was that there were only steering committees for specific cases. In recent years, however, the Anti-corruption Steering Committee operates throughout the conduct of the cases with regular meetings, and are given clearly defined missions and powers. This is a very important factor in turning political determination into practical action, continuously and methodically," Hung said.

Inspection synergy

Further analyzing the key stages that had helped turn the tide in recent times, Hung pointed to the "synergy" between the inspection, supervision and audit sectors. This led to an important conclusion by the Central Commission for Internal Affairs, which said the Communist Party disciplinary actions need to be implemented first to create conditions for the state and other organizations' disciplinary action, as well as criminal prosecution.

He recalled General Secretary Trong's directions in the case of Hau Giang Province's former vice chairman Trinh Xuan Thanh using a private Lexus car with blue license plates in June 2016. At the time, the case seemed to be a minor violation as it only involved a single provincial official. However, when the Central Inspection Committee stepped in, many large issues were uncovered.

Since the beginning of the 12th National Congress's term, the Central Inspection Committee has been selecting "hotspots" and outstanding issues that generated public discontent, such as the management of capital, assets and equitization of state-owned enterprises at Vietnam Oil and Gas Group (PetroVietnam), Vietnam Steel Corporation, Vietnam Expressway Corporation and the Bank for Investment and Development of Vietnam (BIDV).

"In a series of cases, we could see that the participation of the Central Inspection Committee and Party disciplinary actions paved the way and knocked down the fortress of negativity," Hung said, adding that these mechanisms created the basis for subsequent actions of other functional forces.

Vo Van Dung, deputy head of the Central Commission for Internal Affairs, said there were five levels of coordination for handling corruption cases that helped resolve difficulties and problems that arose, including assessment of evidence and determination of criminal charges.

"Under the current law, each procedure-conducting agency acts based on its own perception, so without a mechanism for close coordination, the handling of cases would be prolonged. This five-level mechanism helps ensure that related tasks could progress as required," he said.

At level one, if a procedure-conducting agency encounters difficulties, the sector leader can hold an inter-sectoral meeting and invite other agencies to help resolve them.

If the case is in the investigation phase, the head of the investigating agency can meet with prosecutors, court representatives and leaders of the Central Commission for Internal Affairs to discuss and resolve issues.

In the prosecution phase, such a meeting would be chaired by the prosecutors, and in the trial phase, the court would chair the meeting. If no resolution could be agreed upon, the head of the Central Commission for Internal Affairs would chair the inter-sectoral meeting.

Should there be no agreement still, the case would be moved to level two with the inter-sectoral meeting chaired by the Executive Secretary of the Communist Party's Secretariat, who also serves as the deputy head of the Central Steering Committee on Anti-corruption.

Level three would involve meetings of the standing members of the Central Steering Committee on Anti-corruption, which include the party chief and state president, who serves as head of the committee, and its deputy heads.

Level four will have the entire steering committee meet to resolve the issues, and if even that proves insufficient, the case will be moved to level five, in which the Politburo and the Secretariat would hold meetings.

"The steering committee does not direct what the charges and specific sentences should be; instead, it sets out requirements on how to ensure progress in the case, ensure that the correct people are charged for their corresponding crimes in accordance with the law, without bias and without injustice," Dung said.

Institutional strengthening

In addition to achievements in detecting and handling corruption, Minh also stressed that socio-economic management and anti-corruption institutions had been strengthened over the past eight years.

Between 2016 and May 2020, the party's Central Committee, Politburo and Secretariat issued nearly 80 documents aimed at strengthening the development of the party, the political system and the anti-corruption fight. The National Assembly and its Standing Committee issued 62 laws, one ordinance and 66 resolutions, while the government and prime minister issued 611 decrees, 532 resolutions and 197 decisions to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of state management in all areas of social life.

"In the coming time, competent authorities need to continue directing the review, amendment and supplementing of political and legal corridors in order to develop a strict prevention mechanism, so that there is no forbidden zone in handling corruption, and corruption prevention is taken to its logical conclusion," Minh said.

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