Dong Tam Report

by Pham Doan Trang &  Will Nguyen, September 2020

Summary: On January 9, 2020, between 1 and 3 AM, thousands of police from special task, riot, criminal, and investigative units cordon off Dong Tam in coordination with local ground forces and attacked villagers; the early morning attack was the culmination of a long-running dispute over Senh Field, a 59-hectare parcel of land about five kilometers away.

The villagers were never officially notified of the attack but had heard over public loudspeakers the week prior that the land was “for national defense purposes,” a position the government had reiterated for years regarding the disputed piece of land.

Realizing the sudden message was an implicit warning that the government was about to crack down, Dong Tam villagers declared in a video recorded several hours before the attack that they would “fight to the death” to hold onto the land.

Citizen-blogger social media reports say police cut internet and phone lines in pre-meditation, then burst into the village with tear gas and grenades filled with plastic ball bearings. They then descended upon village leader Le Dinh Kinh’s house, shooting and killing Kinh.

Witnesses describe “thousands of police officers rushing into the village” using flash grenades, firing tear gas, shooting rubber bullets, blocking off all pathways and alleys, and beating villagers indiscriminately, including women and old people.

On the morning of January 9, 26 people, the majority of whom were members of elder Le Dinh Kinh’s extended family, were arrested by police. Concurrently, webpages belonging to Vietnam’s public opinion brigade began reporting on the “the deaths of three martyrs” killed by “terrorists,” attaching to these posts ambiguous pictures of charred corpses.

According to state-controlled media, which only quotes an official statement from the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), it was villagers who attacked police with “grenades, petrol bombs, and knives” as officials tried to erect a wall delineating Mieu Mon airport. The statement accuses villagers of obstructing official duties and “disturbing public order,” a catch-all often used to describe anti-government actions in Vietnam.

Video and photo evidence posted on social media provides ample evidence of citizen mistreatment at the hands of the authorities, including a video in which Kinh’s wife, Du Thi Thanh, speaks about how she was tortured by police into giving a false statement that she had used grenades to attack law enforcement officers.

On January 13, state media released photos of some of the arrested villagers admitting guilt— covered in scrapes and bruises—and announced criminal proceeding against 26 individuals (at time of publication), including five of Kinh’s sons and grandsons: Cong, Chuc, Quang, Doanh, and Uy, for “murder” and “obstruction of officials.”

In the months that followed, police continued to arrest a number of other Dong Tam residents.

On September 7, 2020, 29 individuals from Dong Tam were tried. The trial roiled public opinion; a number of defendants claimed they were tortured into confessing, as police mass-mobilized their forces, crowding the courtroom to maintain order, tightly surveilling Dong Tam commune, as well as human rights activists, and harassing and threatening lawyers. On September 9, after only three days, the Procuracy recommended the death sentence for Le Dinh Cong and Le Dinh Chuc (two of LeDinh Kinh’s sons). On Monday, September 14, the court sentenced Le Dinh Cong and Le Dinh Chuc to death, Le Dinh Doanh (Kinh’s grandson) to life in prison, and elder Bui Viet Hieu to 16 years in prison.

On paper and in media, the police, the Procuracy, and the People’s Court of Hanoi consistently refer to the government’s attack on Dong Tam the night of January 9 as “the case of murder and obstruction of officials that occurred in Hoanh village, Dong Tam, My Duc, Hanoi, January 9, 2020.”

Because we do not agree with this incriminating (and cumbersome) moniker, this report will refer to the occurrence as “the Dong Tam incident,” “the Dong Tam event,” or “the Dong Tam attack.”

15 Dong Tam people who have just received a suspended sentence and return home after the trial came to burn incense, light a fire and mourn at the grave of Le Dinh Kinh on September 14.

Full report

Report content

I.Event summary  4
II.Brief Q&As regarding the Dong Tam attack6  
III.Background of the Dong Tam land dispute  11
IV.Chronology of the Dong Tam land dispute14  
V.Government response: inconsistent information and suppression20  
VI.Points of contention around the January 9 attack24  
VII.The preliminary September trial  29
VIII.Commentaries and testimonies on Dong Tam attack  38
IX.Legal violations of Vietnam’s domestic laws  41
X.Violations of international human rights standards44  
Appendix AFacts and figures on the Dong Tam attack48  
Appendix BDefense lawyer’s argument50  
Appendix CLe Dinh Cong’s court testimony52  
Appendix DIndependent media questionnaire sent to the Ministry of Public Security56  
Appendix EPost-preliminary trial questions posed by civil society groups58  
Appendix F Photos of the Dong Tam attack and aftermath60  

About the authors

Pham Doan Trang is a Vietnamese journalist and democracy activist. After graduating from Hanoi Foreign Trade University in 2001 with a degree in International Economics, she worked in print media, TV production, and publishing. She is now working as an editor for Luat Khoa, a Vietnamese magazine that focuses on political and legal issues in Vietnam.

Trang is the author and co-author of many books, including “Anh Ba Sam”, “From Facebook down to the Street,” “An Overview of the Marine Life Disaster in Vietnam” (2016), “A Handbook of Non-violent Resistance Techniques,” “Politics for the Common People” (2017), “Learning Public Policy through the Issue of Special Economic Zones” (2018), and “Politics of a Police State” (2019).

Will Nguyen is a writer and Vietnamese democracy activist. He works with civil society groups in the Asia-Pacific region, training activists, translating dissident works and news stories, and rallying international support in pursuit of political reform in Vietnam.

He graduated from Yale University in 2008 with a Bachelor’s in East Asian Studies, and in 2018, after completing his Master in Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, was arrested and briefly imprisoned in Vietnam for his role in nationwide protests.