Abuse of power provoked violent confrontation

Police and other hostages were released by villagers in April after the intervention of the Mayor of Hanoi. Photo courtesy Reuters

State prosecutors have brought criminal charges against 14 local officials for their involvement in one of Vietnam’s most volatile land disputes.

The indictments amount to a rare acknowledgement by the Communist authorities that abuse of power helped provoke a violent confrontation in Dong Tam commune near the capital in April.

Villagers in the rural district took more than 30 local officials and police hostage in a long simmering dispute over land tenure.

Dispossessed farmers across Vietnam have long alleged that corrupt local officials seek to profit by selling land to developers.

The prosecutors alleged that 14 officials in the wider district of My Duc, south-west of Hanoi, had wrongfully allocated land and caused the public unrest in April.

They include the senior officials in charge of local land management and natural resources, commune leaders and the chief of local police.

They are accused of abuse of power and dereliction of duty.

Hostages and barricades

The indictment says the officials assigned military land in the area to several local families in return for “benefits”.

No further details are given and it is not clear how explicit the prosecutors intend to be in alleging corrupt practices.

The confrontation escalated this year when the military owned telecom firm, Viettel, began work on building an airport on the disputed land.

The villagers took hostages and built barricades after officials had moved in to arrest leading activists.

Similar land seizures have caused unrest across Vietnam, fuelled by a system in which all land is technically owned by the state and farmers can be easily evicted when developers strike deals with local power brokers.

The scale of the uprising in Dong Tam appears to have shocked the leadership in Hanoi, which intervened to secure a peaceful settlement.

The move to prosecute local officials will be welcomed by villagers and their activists.

However, there’s still deep mistrust of the government’s intentions.

The police caused outrage last month when they reversed an earlier pledge by the Mayor of Hanoi that the villagers would not be prosecuted for their role in the hostage taking.