Cablegate: Nam Cam Trial: A Step in the Right Direction For

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.




E. O. 12958: N/A

1. Summary. One day after the conclusion of the biggest trial
related to corruption and organized crime in the history of
Vietnam, the Vietnamese press is claiming that the judicial
system has fundamentally changed. The conviction of 18 GVN
officials on charges of corruption and 136 private citizens for
crimes ranging from murder to usury, while perhaps only the tip
of the iceberg, seemed to bring some satisfaction to a public
seeking justice. There remains considerable skepticism,
however, that this will reverse the tide of widespread
corruption in Vietnam. There was greater optimism about reform
of the trial process, since in this trial the court gave defense
attorneys greater access to the criminal investigations against
their clients, greater access to their clients, and greater
freedom of speech. While the sentences may not have been
uniformly applied between private citizens and government
officials, and there is ongoing debate about specific
individuals and/or charges, there was a sense that the
convictions and sentences were basically fair. End Summary.

Was Nam Cam Really the Biggest Fish?

2. The headliner in the case was the organized crime kingpin
Truong Van Cam (a.k.a. Nam Cam), whose penetration of HCMC
police was allegedly so pervasive that a special police task
force from other provinces had to be brought in to arrest him.
In jail since December 2001, on June 5, 2003 he received two
death sentences -- for the murder of Dung Ha and for bribery --
and a total of 42 years in prison for the additional crimes of
causing intentional harm, organized gambling, concealing
criminals and trying to flee the country. During the pre-trial
investigation and in trial testimony Nam Cam denied the charge
of ordering the death of Dung Ha, a rival gangster. Press
reports said he plans to appeal the verdicts and sentences in
his case. But even if the sentence for murder is overturned,
Nam Cam is unlikely to escape death by firing squad for the
bribery conviction. Both he and his lawyer told the
international press they believed the trial was fair.

3. A total of 19 government officials were charged with crimes
related to the Nam Cam syndicate. Eighteen of them -- including
Tran Mai Hanh(former head of Voice of Vietnam state radio) and
Pham Sy Chien (former deputy chief of the Supreme People's
Prosecutor's Office), both expelled from the Communist Party
(CP) Central Committee (reftel) -- were sentenced to jail terms.
The defense attorney for one official -- HCMC police detective
Lam Xuan Phat -- succeeded in having the charges against his
client dropped, because the statute of limitations had expired
for any investigation into a crime he was accused of committing
in 1988. The three highest-ranking former GVN officials have
not yet been taken into custody. They will appeal their
sentences to the Supreme Court in Hanoi. While all but one of
the government officials accused has been sentenced to jail,
another 72 government officials from 37 different
departments/organizations have been disciplined. This includes
52 policemen who have been suspended or removed from duty. Many
of the GVN officials were also expelled from party
organizations, as an administrative punishment. The HCMC
People's Court also delivered 24 suspended sentences and
released 10 individuals for time served or pending further
investigation into their cases.

--------------------------------------------- --------------
Justice Better Served? What Was Different This Time Around
--------------------------------------------- --------------

4. Several high-ranking GVN officials announced to the
international media early on during the Nam Cam investigation
that this would be a model case for reform within the justice
system. According to local Vietnamese lawyers and legal
analysts who have been following the trial, this has been true
in limited measure. The Vietnamese legal system is loosely
based on the French civil law system. When an individual is
arrested for breaking the law, the person is put into detention
for up to four months while the criminal investigators prepare
the case for prosecution. Prior to the Nam Cam case, although
exceptions have been known to occur, the individual was
generally not allowed to meet with a defense attorney during
this "investigation" period. However, over the past year, a
number of attorneys defending clients in the Nam Cam case have
been able to meet with their clients -- whether in prison or at
large -- to discuss defense strategy.

5. In the Vietnamese system, after the investigation phase is
over, the investigator gives the results to the prosecutor's
office. The prosecutor's office then submits an analysis of the
portions of the legal code the accused has allegedly violated.
It also proposes a range of sentences based on these violations
to the panel of judges who will hear the case in trial. One
legal analyst close to the Nam Cam case told us the Politburo
had a great deal of input into what the eventual charges and
sentences would be. On the other hand, this analyst added,
usually the results of an investigation are not available to the
defense attorney until the first day of the trial, making it
very difficult to mount a defense. During the Nam Cam case,
however, a number of defense attorneys were able to obtain the
results of the investigations into their clients' alleged crimes
prior to the trial.

6. At trial, the panel of judges listens to arguments from the
prosecution and defense, and decides on the sentence, usually
within the range proposed by the prosecutor. Prior to the Nam
Cam case, if the defense attorney attempted to present a line of
reasoning that did not directly flow from the investigation, or
criticized the facts presented by the prosecution as revealed in
the investigation, the panel of judges would often silence the
attorney, claiming that the argument was beyond the scope of the
trial or simply "inappropriate". However, one observer who
attended part of the trial said that during the Nam Cam case,
several defense attorneys pursued lines of questioning that did
not reflect the "facts" of the investigation as presented by the
prosecution, and the panel of judges did not overrule these
attorneys. In what several lawyers described to ConGenoff as a
highly unusual occurrence, the prosecution was almost uniformly
quiet, while the judges pursued more lines of questioning with
the defense attorneys.

7. The same observer criticized the court for some of its
actions. He noted that the court did not pursue several senior
government officials who had been subpoenaed but failed to
appear. The HCMC People's Court excused their absences for
health reasons or with no explanation.

8. The actual decision on sentencing may also have been
inappropriately influenced. After the conclusion of the trial
period on May 22, the court adjourned for 10 days, during which
the panel of judges was to deliberate over the sentences.
During this period, the Chief Judge traveled to Hanoi, a move
that one Vietnamese lawyer contact interpreted to mean he had
gone to receive instructions from the Politburo or Central
Committee. There was widespread discussion in the local
newspapers as to which GVN or CP organ would ultimately
determine the fate of the accused, and the international media
called Nam Cam's death sentence a "foregone conclusion." Legal
analysts considered ten days a relatively short timeframe in
which to decide the fate of 155 individuals accused of multiple

9. In the end, the various sentences handed down were not
perceived as excessive or unfair either in the media or among
the Vietnamese we talked with. Rumors that some GVN officials
would be given disproportionately light sentences had been
sparked after June 4, when a judge prefaced the reading of their
verdicts with the caveat that the "revolutionary sacrifices" of
those officials and/or their family members would be taken into
consideration during sentencing. There appeared to be some
relief that the key government officials had received jail
sentences. Since there is no public court record to disclose
the details of the investigation and the arguments made at
trial, the appropriateness of the sentencing will remain a
source of legal debate.

Media Access: Organized but not Controlled

10. During the course of the trial, local Vietnamese reporters
said they were granted reasonable access. Daily coverage of the
trial appeared in all five of Ho Chi Minh City's daily
newspapers. HCMC's two evening television news shows only
reported on the trial's major developments: the testimony of
government officials, the opening and closing statements, and
the sentencing phase of the trial. Only the Ho Chi Minh City
state-run television station, HTV, was allowed to have
television cameras in the courtroom. Cameras were present for
the duration of the trial, although only opening statements and
the sentencing were broadcast live on television. Members of
the international press were only permitted to cover the trial's
opening statements and the sentencing phase.

11. Media coverage was organized, as each Vietnamese newspaper
had to register with the Court for access to the proceedings. A
maximum of two reporters and one photographer from each
newspaper were permitted to cover the entire trial. Only
reporters who had registered and received a press badge could
enter the courthouse. Due to space limitations, journalists
were funneled into a small room where they could watch the trial
via closed-circuit TV. At the start of each day, photographers
were allowed into the courtroom for ten minutes to photograph
the defendants.

12. According to a reporter who works for Tuoi Tre and HCMC
Radio, Vietnamese reporters were only censored in their coverage
of the trial by their editors when the subject matter encroached
on "national security" (loosely defined). This reporter did not
specify what comments were cut, but said journalists were able
to include quotes from the prosecution, defense attorneys and
defendants obtained inside or outside the courtroom.

13. Comment: Mr. Bui Hoang Danh, one of the judges in the
trial, tried to make the point repeatedly to the media that this
case was not about widespread corruption, but about the crimes
of private citizens and public officials alike. This became a
point of distinction between the local media, which portrayed
the case as "the case of Nam Cam and his associates," and the
international media, who described it as a major corruption
scandal. A few local legal analysts view this case as
significant because the disparities in sentencing between
average (if scumbag) Joes and mighty government officials was
not extreme. Despite the "revolutionary" sacrifices by some of
the officials being tried, all but one received prison
sentences, including up to 12 years. This is a message that has
met with widespread approval. Still, a lot can happen between
now and the appeal. Once the dust settles on this large-scale
organized crime and corruption trial, we will see whether the
GVN will gear itself up for a sustained crackdown on official
corruption. End Comment.

© Scoop Media

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