HANOI (AFP, REUTERS) - A Vietnamese former state oil executive who was allegedly kidnapped from Germany was on Monday (Jan 22) jailed for life for embezzlement, in the highest-profile corruption trial to target the Communist country's business and political elite.
The blockbuster trial involving 21 other officials, including an ex-politburo member, has gripped a country where the affairs of the powerful are normally kept secret.
But Vietnam's conservative leadership is waging a massive anti-communist sweep that mirrors China's crackdown on graft.
Trinh Xuan Thanh, the former head of state-run PetroVietnam Construction (PVC) was sentenced to "14 years for mismanagement and life in prison for embezzlement", according to state-run VNExpress news site.
The jury said "no-one at PVC dared use money with the wrong purposes" without Thanh's direction, according to VNExpress.
The embezzlement charges carry a maximum sentence of death, but the tariff was reduced after prosecutors recommended life instead.
Thanh faces a second separate trial later this week for embezzlement that could see him put to death.
The oilman was seeking asylum in Germany when he was plucked from a Berlin park by Vietnamese security agents last year, in a brazen Cold-War era episode German officials called a "scandalous violation" of its sovereignty.
Hanoi insists Thanh returned to Hanoi voluntarily to turn himself in, but the incident sparked a diplomatic dust-up, with Berlin expelling two senior Vietnamese diplomats.
Former Politburo member Dinh La Thang, who once chaired the board of PetroVietnam, was also sentenced to 13 years in prison on Monday.
The VNExpress report said the punishment was intended to send a warning to the public about "abuse of power and rampant violation of the law".
Twenty other officials were also sentenced on Monday, receiving between 22 years in prison and 30 months suspended sentence.
All were accused of "deliberate wrongdoing" causing losses worth US$5.2 million (S$6.9 million) for the state during an investment by PetroVietnam in the construction of a thermal power plant.
The trial, which was closed to international press, is the highest-profile corruption case in years.
Policemen escorted Thang and Thanh separately to the courtroom in prison trucks. They wore simple shirts and jackets as judges in dark gowns read their sentences in images broadcast by state media.
The courtroom was packed with judges, defendants, police as well as lawyers and other officials. Only a few state-run media were allowed in, while other reporters watched the televised trial from a separate room.
Foreign media were not permitted to attend the trial or allowed in the televised room but some foreign embassy staff were reportedly given access.
Authorities have mostly focused on the banking and energy sectors but the campaign has spread to other industries, including real estate, and provincial offices of the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam.
More trials are expected this year as part of a Communist party-led crackdown the government says is targeting fraud and mismanagement. Both Thang and Thanh were prosecuted for other corruption cases, separate from Monday’s case.
Critics say the corruption purge is fuelled by political infighting and is led by Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong.
Thanh made a tearful apology to the court last week, seeking forgiveness from Trong and the party in a video that went viral.
He will return to court for a fresh trial on Wednesday on embezzlement charges after he was accused of pocketing US$620,000 of state funds.
The charges carry the death penalty.
According to Transparency International, Vietnam ranks 113 out of 176 on its corruption index, worse than its South-east Asian neighbours Thailand, the Philippines and Myanmar.