Lawyers representing 29 villagers on trial for their role in a deadly land-rights clash in January at a commune near Hanoi were followed by strangers after leaving court on Thursday, shortly after police had seized one lawyer’s USB drive holding notes on the day’s proceedings, sources said.
The 29 face charges of murder and obstruction for what prosecutors say was their role in the clash over a bitter, decades-old land dispute that left three police officers and a protest leader dead in January at the Dong Tam commune near the capital.
On Thursday, the fourth day of a trial for which a ruling is expected on Sept. 14, unidentified men began to trail the lawyers as soon as they left the courthouse gate, Ngo Anh Tuan, one of the defense attorneys told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
“We tried to lose them three or four times, but they managed to follow us even still,” Ngo said.
Ngo told RFA that he and other defense attorneys were now sheltering safely at his office, adding, “At the time, we were worried only that we would be stopped and attacked, so that they could take our laptop computers away from us.”
Security officers present in the court on Thursday had earlier seized a USB drive from one of the lawyers representing the defendants, Nguyen H Luan, another defense attorney, wrote in an account published on his Facebook page.
“Enforcement officials took the USB drive away by force and wouldn’t let any of us copy it. One plainclothes officer also shoved lawyers Dang Dinh Manh and Nguyen Van Mieng,” Nguyen wrote.
Dong Tam village elder Le Dinh Kinh, 84, was shot and killed by police during the early-morning Jan. 9 raid on the village by 3,000 security officers intervening in a long-running dispute over a military airport construction site about 25 miles south of the capital.
Tortured by police
The trial opened Monday, with defense lawyers protesting irregularities in court procedure, objecting to a film they described as film shown in court, and telling the judge presiding in the case they are being denied the right to meet with their clients.
In testimony reported on Wednesday by RFA, but not covered in Vietnam’s state-controlled media, 19 in the group of 29 testified on Tuesday that they had been tortured by police during interrogations following their arrest over the Dong Tam clash, with one saying he had been beaten with a rubber club for ten consecutive days.
On Wednesday, the third day of the trial, the People’s Procuracy of Hanoi called for two death sentences in the case, one for defendant Le Dinh Cong and one for defendant Le Dinh Chuc, both accused of murder in the deaths of three police officers killed in the Jan. 9 clash.
All three were killed in the assault when they were attacked by petrol bombs and fell into a concrete shaft when they ran between two houses, according to state media reports.
On Thursday, a state lawyer serving in the trial objected to requests by defense attorneys Dang Dinh Manh, Nguyen Ha Luan, and Le Van Luan to recreate the scene of the officers’ deaths, saying this would cause unnecessary suffering to the men’s surviving family members.
Defense attorney Le said however that it would be necessary to re-stage the details in the case in order to establish the truth of what had really occurred.
“We don’t want to reawaken any pain, but to avoid another kind of pain—the pain of injustice and of wrongful convictions taking place,” Le said.
“Unjust trial outcomes have often resulted from mistakes and errors committed during the interrogation process and during the experimental recreation of crime scenes,” added defense attorney Ngo. “Therefore, if we want to really arrive at the objective truth in this case, we must carefully recreate the crime scene.”
Final sentencing in the Dong Tam trial is expected on Sept. 14, sources familiar with the trial said.
While all land in Vietnam is ultimately held by the state, land confiscations have become a flashpoint as residents accuse the government of pushing small landholders aside in favor of lucrative real estate projects, and of paying too little in compensation to farming families displaced by development.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Huy Le. Written in English by Richard Finney.