Leniency for criminals willing to pay up? No, thanks

July 6, 2022 | 04:31 pm PT
Nguyen Van Dang Expert in public management and policy
Can we afford lighter sentences for those willing to pay for their crimes, literally? How is that different from bribery, a colleague asked.

It was good question, asked in reaction to a recommendation by the nation's top prosecutor that people guilty of corruption be allowed lighter sentences in exchange for money and assets.

But I didn't know how to answer that question right off the bat.

I don't think that the proposal, which was put forward by Le Minh Tri, head of the Supreme People's Procuracy of Vietnam, at a conference to review last 10 years of the anti-corruption movement, can be boiled down to "right" or "wrong".

Tri argued that the fight against corruption should be more about preventing it and less about punishing the crime; and that those guilty of corruption and economic crimes can be given opportunities to fix their misdeeds. That would not only allow the state to recover its lost assets, but also be a humane gesture.

There is some merit to this argument, I thought. After all, we haven't been able to seize back much of the lost assets in recent economic and corruption cases that have been prosecuted as crimes. In the last 10 years, authorities have only been able to seize around VND61 trillion ($2.6 billion) worth of lost assets, or around 34.7 percent of the amount that should have been seized, according to a report by the Party Central Committee for Internal Affairs.

Certainly, sole leniency for economic crimes is appropriate and has been applied throughout history and in many countries. Vietnam, for example, allowed individuals aged 10-15 and 70-80 to pay their king to be acquitted of certain crimes, according to a law issued in 1042.

Tri cited China as another example. There, prosecutors would first give administrative entities that have committed violations a chance to fix their mistakes before taking the matter to the court. The relevance of this policy in China’s anti-corruption campaign could be seen in stark relief in the case of Liu Zhijun, a former Minister of Railways.

Liu was sentenced to death in 2013 for abusing his power to promote 11 people and receiving $10.5 million in bribes from 1986 to 2011, but his sentence was reduced to life imprisonment in recognition of the numerous contributions he’d made to the railways sector.

Vietnamese law also awards death punishment for corruption, but allows mitigation of sentences in case certain factors come into play. For instance, if the act of corruption did not involve self-interest; if it involved some coercion; or if violators voluntarily reported the crime and fixed the consequences.

It would seem, therefore, that the law is well designed – tough enough to deter violations and kind enough for people to redeem themselves.

But corruption still exists. It has never stopped. So Tri’s proposal might be progressive, but it could also open up a Pandora’s Box. There are many things that have not been clearly defined in the proposal; and given the current political climate where a string of corruption cases have been brought to light, I don’t think this is the right time for Vietnam to adopt it.

We should recognize that corruption has more than economic and financial consequences. It could cost human lives if it happened in hospitals; the cost could be broken generations if it happened in schools. And above all, corruption directly goes against public interest and erodes the trust of citizens in our institutions. These factors and "unseen" consequences have to be considered when making any adjustments to the anti-corruption movement.

For example, Singapore makes economic punishments work. In 2021, the country was among the four least corrupt countries in the world, according to Transparency International. As a researcher, I believe Singapore’s success has to do with its modern economy, an effective administrative system, comprehensive laws and a relentless anti-corruption drive.

There can be several factors that result in the low rate of asset seizures and recoveries from corruption cases, including inadequate policies and laws as well as a lack of ability to implement and enforce them. Till we figure these things out, I don’t think it is appropriate for Vietnam to let corrupt individuals pay for their crimes with ill-gotten wealth.

It is only after we are able to clearly delineate corruption cases and assess the severity of the crimes involved with similar clarity that we can consider adopting a proposal like the one that has been made by our top prosecutor.

*Nguyen Van Dang has a Ph.D in Public Management and Policy from the Portland State University. He is a lecturer at the Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics. The opinions expressed are his own.

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