A Vietnamese court on Monday sentenced a disgraced banking tycoon to 30 years in jail over a multi-million dollar scandal that shocked the nation’s already fragile financial markets.
Nguyen Duc Kien, 50, was found guilty of fraud, tax evasion, illegal trade and “deliberate wrongdoing causing serious consequences,” according to the verdict read at the Hanoi People’s Court.
Kien — a shareholder in some of Vietnam’s largest financial institutions and a founder of Asia Commercial Bank (ACB) — and his accomplices were accused of causing losses of $67 million through illegal cross-bank deposits and investments.
He denied the charges against him, but was imprisoned for three decades and handed a 75 billion dong ($3.5 million) fine.
“The accused was not honest and so must be given serious punishment in line with his crime,” court president Nguyen Huu Chinh said at the end of the two-week trial Monday.
Kien appeared in the dock Monday wearing a white shirt and dark trousers, surrounded by policemen, looking calm and at times wryly amused as legal officials read the lengthy verdict against him.
“Using sophisticated and cunning measures and abusing loopholes in the law (the defendants) raised money under false pretences and had that money flowing from bank-to-bank,” the court president said.
In so doing, Kien and his co-defendants “monopolised domestic financial and monetary markets, adversely affecting the state’s financial market management policy,” he said, adding there could have been “very serious” consequences had the government not intervened when it did.
The flamboyant multi-millionaire was on trial alongside seven other defendants, all top bankers at ACB, which counts global banking giant Standard Chartered as one of its “strategic partners”.
The other defendants, also present in court Monday, were given sentences of between two and eight years. The most senior of the other defendants, the former director of ACB, Ly Xuan Hai, received eight years.
The stiff terms were served as a warning to other bankers and finance professionals, the court president added.
Most of the cash vanished when Kien ordered his staff to make deposits at the Vietnam Joint Stock Commercial Bank for Industry and Trade (Vietinbank).
An employee from that bank has already been sentenced to life imprisonment for fraud.
Kien was also found guilty of forging documents to defraud the top steel firm Hoa Phat Group of $12.5 million.
The banker rose to public prominence as a vocal critic of corruption in Vietnamese football, using his role as chairman of Hanoi Football Club to sound off against Vietnam’s Football Federation.
When Kien was arrested in August 2012 it sent “shockwaves across the country”, state media reported at the time, and caused ACB’s share price to plunge.
Some experts interpreted the arrest of the high-profile banker as part of bitter infighting within the ruling Communist Party.
Kien had been seen as an ally of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung.
– ‘No one is safe’ –
Many commentators expressed shock at the sentences online, arguing that Kien had not been doing anything that other high-profile bankers were not.
“This case shows that no one in this system is safe,” wrote popular internet commentator Osin Huy Duc on his Facebook page.
Another analyst told AFP on condition of anonymity that the verdict had triggered panic in the Vietnamese business community.
“There is a very fine line between right and wrong when doing business in Vietnam. Anyone can be found to have broken the law, even if they have no idea they violate it,” the analyst said.
Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung last week urged foreign investors to retain confidence in Vietnam after the communist country’s reputation as a stable destination for investment was hit hard by deadly mass riots.
The unrest broke out after China moved an oil rig into contested waters in the South China Sea, exacerbating an already-tense territorial standoff between the neighbouring communist countries.