Germany has accused Vietnam of kidnapping a former oil executive in Berlin and spiriting him back to Hanoi to face trial for corruption.
It described the abduction as “an unprecedented and flagrant violation of German and international law” and said it could inflict massive damage on bilateral relations.
Vietnam said only that Trinh Xuan Thanh, a former senior bureaucrat and executive with the state oil company, PetroVietnam, had turned himself in to police in Hanoi on Monday.
He had been on the run for more than a year.
Analysts say that Vietnam’s action will severely damage its reputation across the European Union and beyond, and undermine years of patient diplomacy to develop strategic and economic partners in the West.
The German foreign ministry said it had already ordered the expulsion of an intelligence attache from the Vietnamese embassy.
Abducted by armed men
It summoned Vietnam’s ambassador and demanded that Thanh be returned immediately, so that his application for asylum, and any extradition proceedings, could be considered.
German media reported that Thanh had been abducted by armed men in the forested Tiergarten park in Berlin in late July.
Thanh was Vietnam’s most wanted man after he went on the run last year, following allegations that he was responsible for $150 million in suspicious losses at the construction arm of the state oil giant.
The Secretary-General of the Communist party, Nguyen Phu Trong, said in April that Vietnam would use “any means” to arrest the fugitive and that it would be impossible for him to hide.
By resorting to international kidnap, Vietnam is taking a leaf out of the Chinese and North Korean playbook.
The move can only undermine the international standing of a government that has worked hard to present itself as a mature and reliable partner on the world stage.
The abduction comes amid a harsh crackdown on independent bloggers and pro-democracy activists at home – another sign that the Communist leadership no longer pays much heed to international criticism of its actions.
Observers say that the victory of party hardliners during a power struggle early last year appears to have marked a turning point, with the leadership becoming increasingly intolerant of their critics at home and abroad.
The investigation into Thanh began when he was found to be driving a luxury foreign saloon worth many times his salary as an official.
The subsequent crackdown on corruption has targeted other officials once associated with PetroVietnam, including the former politburo member, Dinh La Thang, who was dismissed from his post In May.