If Vietnamese agents planned a discreet operation to spirit the fugitive former oil executive, Trinh Xuan Thanh, back to Hanoi, the enterprise backfired spectacularly.
They are alleged to have made their move in broad daylight at 10.40 on the morning of Sunday 23 July by the Tiergarten park in central Berlin.
German police immediately received reports from several witnesses that a man and his female companion were seized by a group of men and forced violently into a Czech registered vehicle.
The woman, who has not been identified, was reported to have presented herself, with a broken arm, at a Hanoi hospital at 1 AM on 25 July, according to Mr Thanh’s lawyer, Petra Schlagenhauf.
Taken by surprise
German police are following up the Czech connection. There are unconfirmed reports that the pair arrived in Hanoi on a “medical flight” from Russia.
Vietnam is sticking by its story that Mr Thanh voluntarily returned home to face charges for economic crimes connected with his time as a senior executive at PetroVietnam.
It is believed, however, that the Vietnamese government was taken by surprise by the accusations of a forced abduction, and by the angry response of the German government.
The Vietnamese ambassador to Berlin is reported to have been nonplussed when he was summoned to the foreign ministry to hear a formal complaint. He was told that his intelligence attache was being expelled and that Mr Thanh should be returned to Germany immediately.
Mr Thanh appeared on television in Vietnam on August 3 to say that he had decided to return home voluntarily to face the charges against him.
“It was horrible, like George Orwell in 2017,” said Petra Schlagenhauf, his German lawyer.
“His physical state was horrible. His face was bloated, it appeared as if he had been drugged,” she said.
Mr Thanh had applied for asylum in Germany, arguing that he could not expect a fair trial in Vietnam given the extent of the campaign in the state media to blacken his name.
He has been accused of responsibility for losses of $150 million at the construction arm of the state oil firm.
He said nothing about his asylum application in his TV appearance.
“I wasn’t thinking maturely and decided to hide, and during that time I realised I need to return to face the truth and… admit my faults and apologise,” he said.
Mr Thanh had been preparing to make his case for asylum to German officials on Monday 24 July, the day after he disappeared.
He was apprehensive, according to Ms Schlagenhauf, and concerned that Vietnamese agents were attempting to discover his whereabouts.
However, neither of them had given much thought to the possibility of an abduction.
Their main concern was an arrest by the German police following the Vietnamese government’s request for extradition.
The German government is still demanding that Mr Thanh be returned so his asylum application can be processed.
It has warned that further diplomatic measures could be taken if its request is not met.