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Kidnapping suspect fled to Vietnam to escape arrest

A suspect in the kidnapping of Vietnamese oil executive Trinh Xuan Thanh returned to Vietnam to evade a European Union arrest warrant, according to a Berlin-based journalist covering the case, while another reporter claimed he could have avoided arrest if he had stayed away from Europe for a few more months.

The German Federal Prosecutor’s Office said last week that a Vietnamese national, identified as Anh T.L., was arrested in Prague and handed over to German authorities on June 1.

He is accused of “spying and assisting in deprivation of liberty,” in connection with the abduction of Thanh in a Berlin park in 2017.

Journalist Le Trung Khoa told RFA the suspect is Le Anh Tu, a Vietnamese resident of the Czech Republic.  

Khoa said the German prosecutor’s office issued an indictment against him during the trial of another suspect, Nguyen Hai Long, in 2018. The indictment said that Le Anh Tu drove the minibus used to kidnap Thanh on July 23, 2017 and then sought refuge at the Vietnamese Embassy in Berlin:

“Clearly, he was directly involved in the kidnapping because he was the driver of the car that was used during the illegal detention of Trinh Xuan Thanh. He witnessed the entire process from the time the kidnapping team picked up Lieutenant General Duong Minh Hung and other Vietnamese officers at a nearby hotel,” said Khoa.

German journalist Marina Mai, who has also been covering the case, told RFA that Le Anh Tu would not have been arrested if he had arrived in Europe more than four months later:

“Secret operations in Germany have a five-year statute of limitations,” she said. “Because the arrest warrant for Mr. Anh was effective from August 10, 2017, as far as I know, it would expire on August 10, 2022. So if Mr. Anh came to Europe four months later, he may not have been arrested. Now it has happened, I think there will be a second trial related to Trinh Xuan Thanh’s abduction to try him.”

Meetings at the Borik Hotel

It is claimed that Le Anh Tu drove another vehicle from the Czech Republic to the Borik Hotel in the Slovakian capital Bratislava where he met with Vietnam’s Minister of Public Security, To Lam.

Khoa said that because Le Anh Tu was involved in almost the entire process of abducting and taking Trinh Xuan Thanh from Germany to the Czech Republic a trial will help clarify To Lam’s role and reveal whether or not former Slovak Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák was also involved in the kidnapping.

 “In [Nguyen Hai Long’s] sentencing they clearly stated that To Lam was the one who organized this kidnap in Europe. However, at present, there is not enough real evidence to prosecute To Lam so I think they will do it step by step. Le Anh Tu’s arrest and extradition to Germany was a very important step because he [took part in] the meeting of the former Slovak Minister of Interior and To Lam at the Borik Hotel in Slovakia.”

Vietnam’s Minister of Public Security met with then-Slovak Republic Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák at the hotel on July 26, 2017.

The government then lent a plane to the Vietnamese to fly to Moscow from Bratislava. Some German and Slovakian media outlets speculated that Vietnam might have used the plane to take Thanh back to Vietnam.

Robert Kaliňák denies being involved in the kidnapping plan. In December 2018, Slovakia decided to suspend an investigation of officials suspected of aiding Thanh’s return to Vietnam.

At the time of the kidnapping the German foreign ministry condemned Vietnam’s abduction on German soil as “a flagrant violation of German law and international law, which we will never tolerate.”

It imposed sanctions, including the suspension of its strategic partnership with Vietnam and expelled four Vietnamese Embassy employees and their families.

German economic groups who want to do business with Vietnam have criticized the sanctions, according to Mai. She said their pressure persuaded the government to begin normalizing relations with Vietnam at the end of 2018. 

“This does not mean that Germany is no longer interested in the Trinh Xuan Thanh case,” Mai said. 

“Germany has recognized Vietnam’s release of Nguyen Van Dai to Germany, and also acknowledged that Vietnam did not execute Trinh Xuan Thanh. But the German government is still demanding the release of Trinh Xuan Thanh and his return to Germany.”

“Vietnamese diplomatic passport holders are still not allowed to travel to Germany without a visa and Germany has not allowed Vietnam to appoint a liaison officer with the police and secret service in the Vietnamese embassy in Berlin since the kidnapping happened,” she added.

Trial 2
Trinh Xuan Thanh is led by policemen to the courtroom at Hanoi People’s Courthouse on January 8, 2018. CREDIT: AFP

Germany will ‘pursue it to the end’

According to Le Trung Khoa, Germany’s independent judiciary means it will investigate this case to the end, as evidenced by the fact that Le Anh Tu was arrested as soon as he returned to Europe:

“Germany must, and will, pursue it to the end according to the independent judiciary, no matter what they ignore or like in Vietnam or say it will take a long time to pass.”

In 2017, the German side made three requests to Vietnam in order to re-establish diplomatic relations between the two countries. The first was to ask Vietnam to return the status quo by returning Trinh Xuan Thanh to Germany. The second was to apologize for violating the law and sovereignty of Germany. The third was to promise not to repeat the crime. However, Vietnam has not complied with these requests.

Marina Mai said the likelihood of Thanh being returned to Germany depends on whether the Hanoi government wants to stop violating international law.  

“That can only happen if Trinh Xuan Thanh is returned to Germany,” she said. 

“Germany is ready to issue a passport to Trinh Xuan Thanh. His family is living here.” 

Vietnam unlikely to return Thanh any time soon

According to Le Trung Khoa, it is unlikely that Thanh will be returned to Germany in the near future, at least when Nguyen Phu Trong is still General Secretary and To Lam is Minister of Public Security. 

“If it’s the case that Trinh Xuan Thanh is allowed to return to Germany, he will be required to honestly declare the entire process of his abduction,” he said.

“It would then pose a great danger to the Communist Party of Vietnam and in particular to Nguyen Phu Trong and To Lam who may have been very closely involved in this kidnapping. Therefore, it is very difficult for Trinh Xuan Thanh to return to Germany in the near future.”

Trinh Xuan Thanh was a Vice Chairman of Hau Giang province’s People’s Committee before being investigated for the crime of “deliberately violating State regulations, causing serious consequences,” in 2016. At that time he fled and applied for asylum in Germany.

A month after his kidnapping by the Vietnamese secret service in Berlin in July 2017 Thanh appeared on Vietnam’s national television channel VTV saying he had returned to Vietnam to turn himself in to “accept his shortcomings and apologize,” in the hope of  “enjoying the leniency of the Party and the State.”

A Hanoi court charged Thanh with causing loss of state assets and mismanagement at PetroVietnam Construction Joint Stock Corporation. He was sentenced to two life terms on corruption charges.

 Neither Thanh nor the Vietnamese authorities have explained how he returned to Vietnam from Germany to give himself up.