HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — A court in central Vietnam sentenced seven people to up to life in prison Friday for defrauding families of Vietnam War soldiers by moving unidentified war dead into fake graves and claiming to have found their kin.
Nguyen Van Thuy, 56, was convicted of fraud and infringement on graves and given life in prison in the one-day trial, Presiding Judge Vo Ngoc Mau said.
Thuy's wife and four relatives received 5 to 25 years on the same charges, the judge said. The remaining defendant was given a one-year suspended sentence for infringement on graves.
"Their crime is very serious," Mau said by telephone from Quang Tri province. "It hurt the families of the soldiers killed in action and hurt the nation as a whole."
More than 1 million Vietnamese soldiers were killed in the war, which ended in 1975. At least 200,000 bodies have yet to be found, while the remains of some 300,000 Vietnamese soldiers have been buried in unnamed graves.
The judge said the seven defendants stole more than 70 sets of remains of soldiers in unnamed graves from several war cemeteries and set up fake graves buried with fake personal effects such as water containers and helmets and bore the names of the dead soldiers the families were seeking.
Thuy, who claimed to have paranormal power, and his accomplices cheated $363,000 from a charitable fund set up by the Vietnam Bank for Social Policies and from 12 Vietnamese families by charging a fee to find the dead and missing soldiers, he said.
State-run Laborer newspaper quoted one of those defrauded, Nguyen Thi Tinh, as telling the court that the family was very happy to find the remains of her father, but they were shocked to find out the scam.
"When the remains were dug up, we were amazed to see the name of my father on the personal effects and his unit," she said." Our family was very moved and no one had any suspicion. But we felt distressed when we were informed by the police (about the scam)."
Tinh told the court that her family paid a fee of 100 million dong ($4,500) to Thuy.
Mau said the court ordered the seven defendants to compensate the bank and the families who were cheated.
This story has been corrected to show that Thuy's wife and four relatives were given sentences of 5 to 25 years, not 5 to 23 years.