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article imageGerman court tries Vietnam man over 'Cold War-style' abduction

By Frank ZELLER (AFP)     Apr 24, 2018 in World

Germany put on trial Tuesday the only suspect held over what it calls a brazen Cold War-style kidnapping by Vietnamese secret agents that has badly bruised bilateral ties, with the defence arguing the accused was an unwitting pawn.

The man in the dock -- a Vietnamese-Czech dual citizen identified only as Long N.H., -- allegedly rented vehicles used in last July's abduction of a fugitive Vietnamese state company official from a Berlin park.

His defence lawyer Stephan Bonell told journalists that the 47-year-old "knew nothing ... he was the sacrificial pawn" who had been told by the agents that he was renting the vehicles "for touristic purposes".

The kidnapped man -- Trinh Xuan Thanh, 52, also a Communist party functionary who was seeking political asylum in Germany -- was quickly spirited back to Hanoi and sentenced this year to two life terms in prison on corruption charges.

Thanh, and his female companion, Thi Minh P.D., aged in her mid-twenties, were walking in Berlin's Tiergarten park when "they were both dragged, right out in the open, into a VW van, to be taken to Vietnam against their will," said prosecutor Lienhardt Weiss.

Weiss said Thanh was returned to Vietnam "by unknown means".

Investigators believe the kidnapped Vietnamese functionary may have been taken in an ambulance to the Slovakian capital Bratislava and then flown to Hanoi, the Berlin daily Tageszeitung reported.

The Vietnamese-Czech suspect is charged with working for a foreign intelligence service and aiding i...
The Vietnamese-Czech suspect is charged with working for a foreign intelligence service and aiding in an abduction
Tobias SCHWARZ, AFP

Germany condemned the July 23, 2017, operation as a "scandalous violation" of its sovereignty. It expelled two Vietnamese diplomats, summoned the ambassador several times and put on ice a strategic bilateral partnership.

Communist-ruled Vietnam has insisted that Thanh, the former head of PetroVietnam Construction, returned voluntarily to face embezzlement charges.

Vietnam, like China, has recently convicted scores of figures from its business and political elite as part of an anti-graft drive which observers say also serves to settle scores between hardline and reformist factions.

Thanh's German lawyer Petra Schlagenhauf, a co-plaintiff in the trial, is pushing for his release and return to Germany, where he has since been granted asylum in absentia.

The kidnapping "was like a story from the Cold War," said the lawyer, who alerted German security services to the abduction also witnessed by several stunned onlookers.

German prosecutors are investigating a high-ranking Vietnamese intelligence official, Duong Minh Hung, who allegedly commanded the abduction before returning to Vietnam, the Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily reported last month.

- Violent struggle -

The defendant, Long N.H., was once among thousands of so-called guest workers in communist East Germany. He was later denied asylum and resettled in Prague.

He was arrested there on August 12 and extradited days later to Germany, where he is charged with working for a foreign intelligence service and aiding in an abduction, which each carry up to 10 years in prison.

Prosecutors say he drove the van from Prague to Berlin and back, but was not at the wheel during the kidnapping. He also allegedly rented a BMW X5 sedan that had been used for surveillance of the couple.

Defence lawyer Bonell meanwhile criticised the German government for not following through on Vietnam's graft accusations against Thanh and its extradition request, insisting this may have led Berlin to deport Thanh.

German investigators reconstructed the abduction using the van's GPS system, witness statements, footage from multiple security cameras on streets, petrol stations and inside hotels, and Thanh's smartphone, which was left at the scene.

Thanh  who was seeking asylum in Germany  was living in seclusion in Berlin with his wife and childr...
Thanh, who was seeking asylum in Germany, was living in seclusion in Berlin with his wife and children
STR, dpa/AFP/File

The Vietnamese snatch team tracked down Thanh -- who had been living in seclusion in Berlin with his wife and children since mid-2016 -- when Thi Minh P.D., his secret lover, flew in from Paris to meet him at a hotel, Der Spiegel news weekly reported.

In the violent struggle in the Tiergarten park, Thanh hit back at his attackers and the woman lashed out so strongly that eyewitnesses thought she had suffered an epileptic seizure.

Police found traces of Thanh's blood in the van, and the abducted woman was later reported receiving treatment for a broken arm in a Hanoi hospital.

The Berlin court has scheduled 21 days of hearings until May 17.

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