HAIPHONG, Vietnam (AP) — A court sentenced a family of four Vietnamese fish farmers to between two and five years in prison on Friday after finding them guilty of attempted murder for fighting back against a state eviction squad with homemade guns and land mines.
The men have been lauded on the Internet for defending their land in such spectacular fashion. Land grabs by corrupt officials are the leading source of public anger toward the one-party government in this autocratic Southeast Asian nation.
The sentences were less severe than they could have been given the seriousness of the charges. The government has been on the defensive because of the public sympathy toward the family. A month after the incident, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung ruled that the eviction was illegal, and ordered the officials who carried it out to be punished.
The man identified as the ringleader, Doan Van Vuon, showed no emotion as he was sentenced to five years in prison after a four-day trial in the northern city of Haiphong, close to the family's village. The 50-year-old former soldier had previously argued that the land mines and the gunfire were meant to warn the police and army-backed eviction crew to stay away from his family's land and fish ponds.
One of his brothers also received five years, and a third got 3 1/2 years. A nephew received a two-year term. Vuon's wife and a second female relative received suspended sentences for their roles in the standoff, during which seven police and army officers sustained minor injuries.
Members of the Vuon family say they were given the 41 hectares (101 acres) of land by authorities in 1993, when it was swampland that had been badly damaged by a typhoon. They transformed it into a fish and prawn business. In 2009, authorities said they wanted the land back without compensation. Since the prime minister's order declaring the eviction illegal, they have been allowed to keep the land.
The government gave limited access to journalists wanting to cover the trial.
The presiding judge, Pham Duc Tuyen, said the family's crimes were "dangerous to the society, illegally violating the life and health of other people, violating the normal operations of the state agencies and causing bad impact on the social order and social management of Haiphong City in particular and the country as a whole."
Speaking to reporters after the trial, Vuon's defense lawyer, Nguyen Viet Hung, said, "I'm not happy. I had expected for a better verdict."
Activists opposed to one-party rule in Vietnam have defended the Vuon family. On Tuesday, scores of protesters braved a security clampdown to show their support for the family, and police arrested several near the courts. On Friday, there were no demonstrators, and authorities threatened to arrest journalists taking photographs outside the court unless they left the area.
Vietnamese authorities give citizens limited land rights and are allowed to seize it from them for national security or defense, economic development or the public interest. In some cases, that translates into industrial parks that bring jobs to the poor, or roads and bridges. But in an increasing number of cases, it means grabbing fish farms or rice paddies for golf courses and resorts accessible only to the rich.