Former top officials in the dock

Dinh La Thang was once a rising star in the Communist party leadership.

Vietnam’s most sensational trial for years has opened in Hanoi, with a former politburo member and a fugitive oil executive among 22 defendants facing corruption charges.

The sight of the once powerful Communist party apparatchik, Dinh La Thang, being escorted to the court in handcuffs was startling in a country where corrupt political leaders can normally count on impunity.

All eyes were also on Trinh Xuan Thanh, former boss of the state oil company’s construction arm, who, according to evidence from the German government, was abducted from Berlin by Vietnamese agents last July.

Trinh Xuan Thanh was allegedly abducted by Vietnamese agents while seeking political asylum in Berlin. Photo courtesy AFP.

The accused are all former executives of PetroVietnam and its subsidiaries, accused on various charges of economic mismanagement and embezzlement.

The trial forms the centrepiece of an anti-corruption campaign being led very publicly by the resurgent Communist party boss, Nguyen Phu Trong, who has consolidated his grip on the organs of party and state.

Dinh La Thang was accused of “deliberately violating state economic management regulations, causing serious consequences” during his time as Chairman of PetroVietnam.

The charges relate to the awarding of a multimillion contract for a power station to the company’s construction arm, led at the time by Trinh Xuan Thanh.

Dinh La Thang faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison if convicted, and Thanh faces a possible death sentence if convicted on further charges of embezzlement, to be heard at a separate hearing.

Dinh La Thang faces up to 20 years in prison on charges of economic mismanagement

Thang was abruptly dismissed from the politburo and from his role as mayor of Ho Chi Minh City last year, as the campaign against former executives of PetroVietnam gathered momentum.

His rapid rise to the top levels of the Communist party had led some to tip him as a possible future leader.

However, he was seen as a protege of the former prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, who lost out to Trong in a power struggle in 2016. Many of Dung’s associates have since felt the brunt of the anti-corruption campaign, leading to suspicion that the drive is politically motivated.

A separate trial opened simultaneously in Ho Chi Minh City, with 46 defendants facing fraud charges involving the state construction bank.

The Hanoi trial was closed to the public and journalists, with police imposing tight security around the People’s Court.

The German lawyer who represented Thanh during his bid for political asylum in Germany was deported last week after attempting to enter the country at Hanoi airport.

Petra Schlagenhauf said she did not believe that her client would receive a fair trial.

Vietnam insists that Thanh returned to Hanoi voluntarily despite abundant evidence from the German government that he was kidnapped in broad daylight in a Berlin park.

Diplomatic relations between the two countries have been badly damaged with ratification of the Vietnam-EU free trade agreement in possible jeopardy as Berlin steps up pressure.