Vietnamese real estate tycoon Tru'o'ng Mỹ Lan

Vietnamese real estate tycoon Tru'o'ng Mỹ Lan appears in court in Ho Chi Minh City on April 11, 2024.

(Photo: STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Vietnam Sentences Billionaire to Death for White Collar Fraud

The trials of Tru'o'ng Mỹ Lan and 84 others are part of an anti-corruption campaign led by the head of Vietnam's Communist Party.

As global billionaires see their wealth soar to record heights, one Vietnamese real estate tycoon was sentenced to death on Thursday in the Southeast Asian nation's largest-ever financial fraud case, part of a government crackdown on corruption.

Tru'o'ng Mỹ Lan, founder of the real estate developer Vạn Thịnh Phát Group, was arrested in October 2022 for illegally controlling and embezzling money from Saigon Commercial Bank (SCB) for a decade after a 2011 merger she arranged.

"Lan embezzled $12.5 billion, but prosecutors said Thursday the total damages caused by the scam now amounted to $27 billion—a figure equivalent to 6% of the country's 2023 [gross domestic product]," according to Agence France-Presse. "The court ordered Lan, 67, to pay almost the entire damages sum in compensation."

The BCCreported that "according to prosecutors, over a period of three years from February 2019, she ordered her driver to withdraw 108 trillion Vietnamese dong, more than $4 billion in cash from the bank, and store it in her basement. That much cash, even if all of it was in Vietnam's largest denomination banknotes, would weigh two tonnes."

AFP spoke with one of the 42,000 victims of the scandal identified by authorities:

Nga, a 67-year-old Hanoi resident... told AFP Thursday that she had hoped for a life sentence for Lan so she could live to fully witness the pain her actions had caused ordinary people.

"Many people worked hard to deposit money into the bank, but now she's received the death sentence and that's it for her," said Nga, using a pseudonym to protect her identity.

"She can't see the suffering of the people."

Nga has so far been unable to retrieve the $120,000 she invested with SCB.

Human rights advocates consider Vietnam to be a global leader in death penalty sentences and executions, though data on the topic are considered state secrets, so precise figures are not known.

"From January to early October 2023, at least 189 people have been sentenced to death in Vietnam," The Vietnamese Magazinereported last year, citing state media reports. Among them, "44 were convicted of murder (23%), while the remaining 145 (77%) were involved in illegally trading or transporting narcotic substances."

Amnesty International, which opposes the death penalty in all cases, released its latest annual report on sentences and executions worldwide last May. While noting the Vietnamese government's limits on official data, the group found that in 2022, there were at least 102 sentences handed down and over 1,200 people on death row in the country.

"The death penalty in Vietnam is used to intimidate those who would break the law, while also showing the power of the ruling party," Human Rights Watch's Asia deputy director Phil Robertson toldCNN in 2022. "This is a government that chases down dissidents, runs roughshod over civil society, sentences and imprisons people after kangaroo court trials, and now we know, executes far more people than anyone else in [the region]."

"Vietnam's horrendous record of executions dwarfs that of any of its neighbors but it is not surprising that the government has systematically implemented the death penalty and kept executions out of the public eye," Robertson added.

As the BCC noted:

The habitually secretive communist authorities were uncharacteristically forthright about this case, going into minute detail for the media. They said 2,700 people were summoned to testify, while 10 state prosecutors and around 200 lawyers were involved.

The evidence was in 104 boxes weighing a total of six tonnes. Eighty-five others were tried with Tru'o'ng Mỹ Lan, who denied the charges and can appeal.

All of the defendants were found guilty. Four received life in jail. The rest were given prison terms ranging from 20 years to three years suspended.

The trials were part of the ongoing "Blazing Furnace" anti-corruption campaign spearheaded by Nguyễn Phú Trọng, secretary-general of Vietnam's Communist Party.

Multiple top officials have left office during the campaign, including Vietnamese President Võ Văn Thưởng, who resigned last month. The Communist Party did not offer details about the reason for his departure but said that "Thưởng's violations and shortcomings have caused bad public opinion, affecting the reputation of the party, the state, and him personally."

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