Vietnam sentences former banker, petro boss to death for graft

A Vietnamese former banking executive was sentenced to death today in a massive fraud case, while his co-accused got life imprisonment, in a blockbuster trial involving 51 bankers and businessmen.

The People's Court of Hanoi  sentenced to death former Ocean Bank general director Nguyen Xuan Son, who was also a former chairman of state-run PetroVietnam, after finding him guilty in the mass trial of 51 officials and bankers accused of graft and mismanagement that led to losses of $69 million.

The sentences were delivered at the end of a month-long trial as Vietnam's communist leadership wages an anti-corruption sweep, targeting former officials, bankers and executives accused of graft and mismanagement.

Son, director of the bank at the time and who later became chairman of the powerful PetroVietnam, was sentenced to death for embezzlement, abuse of power and wrongdoing. The scandal sparked the demise of Ocean Bank.

Former Ocean Bank chairman Ha Van Tham, once one of Vietnam's richest men, was jailed for life on the same charges, as well as for violating lending rules, as the court began delivering its verdict in the trial.

Both men left the courthouse stone-faced after the verdict was handed down.

The trial targeting high-flying executives accused of losses worth millions of dollars has captivated Vietnam, which is ranked one of the most corrupt nations in Asia.

The charges cascaded down the ranks, targeting accountants, branch managers and scores of others in one of the country's largest-ever banking trials.

The other sentences announced on Friday ranged from 22 years in prison to 18-month suspended sentences and re-education outside of prison.

"Tham and Son's behaviour is very serious, infringing on the management of state property and causing public grievances, which requires strict punishment," said judge Truong Viet Toan.

Tham, the founder of Ocean Bank, was convicted of illegally approving a $23 million loan in 2012 and economic mismanagement causing major losses.

Also included in the indictment was PetroVietnam's acquisition of a $35-million stake in the bank in 2009. It was later written off.

PetroVietnam had been part of the Ocean Group, which takes in real estate and hotel subsidiaries and enjoyed a meteoric rise after its founding in 2007. It was valued at $500 million in 2013 under Tham's stewardship.

Ocean Group is still active in real estate, hotels and services, and was valued at $3.5 million in 2016, according to its website.

Vietnam's scandal-hit banking sector has long been plagued by dodgy loans and favouritism, which risks hampering the country's solid economic growth.

Son was the second of the accused to be sentenced as the death penalty had been recommended by the Supreme People's Procuracy of Vietnam.

Vietnam has introduced the use of lethal drugs for executions in recent years, having previously used firing squads.

The mass trial was a result of the tougher stance on corruption taken by the ruling Communist Party since Vietnam's security establishment emerged stronger from a power struggle last year in which ex-Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung lost.

The party says it wants to tackle corruption but some critics have accused Vietnam's rulers of embarking on a witch-hunt following the launch of investigations implicating increasingly senior figures.

Dung lost last year in the battle to secure the post of Communist Party General Secretary, Vietnam's most powerful position. The post remained in the hands of Nguyen Phu Trong, whose modest public profile contrasts with the conspicuous wealth that some members of Dung's administration had displayed.

Investigations into PetroVietnam has seen a Politburo member who was a former PetroVietnam chairman, and a vice trade minister, sacked from their positions and a former deputy central bank governor prosecuted.

The court finished hearing the case against the 51 officials on Monday, and reconvened today to deliver the verdicts and sentences.

Neither Son nor Tham were given a chance to respond after the verdict was handed down.

On Monday, Son proclaimed his innocence and pleaded for the court not to give "an unjust verdict".

"I did not believe my eyes when I was prosecuted on charges of embezzlement; stunned and bewildered, I became like a soulless person," Son said.

In the same session, Tham admitted the charge of lending violations at Ocean Bank, but denied graft allegations.