Hanoi (AsiaNews/Agencies) - Peter Doan Van Vuon, head of a brave family that dared to fight back against forced expropriation by the authorities, was sentenced to five years in prison. Given the fact that he was on trial for attempted murder, the People's Court in Hai Phong, a port city in the northern Vietnam, was surprisingly lenient.
Following the exceptionally speedy trial, the other three men in the family were given sentences that ranged from two to five years. The women received lighter suspended sentences.
The presiding judge, Pham Duc Tuyen, said that the family's actions had "[violated] the normal operations of state agencies and [caused a] bad impact on social order."
During the trial, the main accused and his relatives pleaded not guilty. In his defence, Doan said that he did not intend to kill anybody: "I was left with no option," he said.
Despite the conviction, local legal experts noted that the verdict is more lenient than expected. It appears that, under pressure from the government, the judge chose not to be heavy-handed to avoid raising social tensions and causing possible street demonstrations in favour of a family that has gained notoriety and acclaim in the battle to defend its rights.
Their story is just the latest in a long series of cases involving clashes between the authorities and ordinary Vietnamese, or the government and the Catholic Church, over ownership of land, buildings or businesses.
In this particular case, the dispute revolves around 40 hectares of land leased to Peter Doan Van Vuon by the government in 1993.
After many years of hard work, the family turned marshland and swamps into a fish farm. In 2009, when the business began to turn a profit, the authorities demanded the return of the property. After a long legal battle, the government issued an ultimatum on 24 November 2011, telling the family to vacate the farm and business.
Instead of giving in, Peter and his family put up a fight. When soldiers came to enforce the government's decision on 5 January 2012, they were greeted with bullets and grenades, made not to kill but to deny the invaders access to the property.
No one was killed or wounded during the standoff, but in the end, the police were able to break in and arrest the family with its members eventually put on trial for attempted murder.
Such a strong willingness to defend one's rights has been met with support from Catholics and non-Catholics, amazed by Doan Vuon's determination to protect his family's life work.
Recently, Mgr Paul Nguyen Thai Hop, who heads the Justice and Peace Commission of the Catholic Church, and Joseph Vu Van Thien, bishop of Hai Phong, started a petition to get the accused acquitted.
Even Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in the past described such land grabs as unlawful and promised to prosecute the corrupt officials responsible for them.