Published: Saturday, April 6, 2013

Farmer jailed for military-style defence

Doan Van Vuon (standing, 4th L), Doan Van Quy (standing, 2nd L) and Doan Van Sinh (standing, 3rd R) stand with policemen in front of the dock at a court during a verdict session in Hai Phong, 100 kilometres east of Hanoi, April 5, 2013, in this picture provided by the Vietnam News Agency. Photo: Reuters

Doan Van Vuon (standing, 4th L), Doan Van Quy (standing, 2nd L) and Doan Van Sinh (standing, 3rd R) stand with policemen in front of the dock at a court during a verdict session in Hai Phong, 100 kilometres east of Hanoi, April 5, 2013, in this picture provided by the Vietnam News Agency. Photo: Reuters

A fish farmer who became a cult hero in Vietnam after fighting off an illegal eviction with homemade guns and mines was jailed on Friday for five years for attempted murder in a case that has stirred public anger over state-backed land grabs.

Doan Van Vuon, plus two of his brothers and one nephew, were given jail terms of between two and five years for injuring seven police and soldiers in northern Haiphong last January, state media reported. Two of their wives received suspended sentences of 15-18 months for resisting officials.

Land grabs, both legal and illegal, are a major source of public discontent with the state in Communist Vietnam, which owns all the country’s land. The case has been a major talking point in social media and blogs, with critics calling for changes in land laws.

The government offered land leases of 20 years to farmers as part of pro-peasant policies in the 1990s, but critics say corrupt state officials have allowed illegal seizures in return for kickbacks from businesses.

State television showed footage this week of the courtroom displaying the cooking gas cylinders, electrical cables and steel pipes Vuon and his relatives used for bombs and hand guns.

The authorities in Haiphong have admitted their eviction was unlawful and several officials face trial next week.

Tran Dinh Trien, a defence lawyer in the trial, said Vuon had no intention of causing harm and had exercised all legal means to protect his land before staging his spectacular display of resistance.

“I had warned them that I would resist. It pained me to have to criminalize this civil issue, so that the agencies would look into it,” Trien quoted Vuon as saying in a Facebook posting.

Rapid economic growth, foreign investment and industrial expansion has made land highly lucrative, and Vietnamese who dare to criticize a government that responds harshly to dissent say it has allowed abuses of broad clauses in leases that allow land seizures for reasons of national security, defence, economic development and public interest.

Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director for Human Rights Watch, said the lengths to which Vuon went should serve as a wake-up call for the government about a growing problem.

“The issue of widespread arbitrary land seizures by corrupt officials or without due process and just compensation is what really made this trial resonate in the minds of ordinary Vietnamese people,” he said.