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Vietnam’s multi-billion dollar fraud case: key things to know

Truong My Lan, chair of major developer Van Thinh Phat, was found guilty of embezzling cash from Saigon Commercial Bank (SCB) over the course of a decade
Truong My Lan, chair of major developer Van Thinh Phat, was found guilty of embezzling cash from Saigon Commercial Bank (SCB) over the course of a decade - Copyright AFP STR
Truong My Lan, chair of major developer Van Thinh Phat, was found guilty of embezzling cash from Saigon Commercial Bank (SCB) over the course of a decade - Copyright AFP STR

A high-profile Vietnamese real estate tycoon was sentenced to death on Thursday in one of the biggest corruption cases in history, with an estimated $27 billion in damages.

Truong My Lan, chair of major developer Van Thinh Phat, was found guilty of embezzling cash from Saigon Commercial Bank (SCB) over the course of a decade in a case that has stunned the nation.

Eighty-five others, including Lan’s husband, niece and several SCB executives, were also sentenced at the court in southern commercial hub Ho Chi Minh City.

– Who is Truong My Lan? –

Lan was Born in 1956 in Ho Chi Minh City and her mother was a market trader who sold cosmetics, according to state media. 

She founded Van Thinh Phat in 1992, and it went on to purchase high-end hotels, restaurants and luxury apartments as well as invest in financial services. Many of its real estate projects are in prime locations in central Ho Chi Minh City.

Investigators said there were more than 1,000 businesses in the “Van Thinh Phat” ecosystem, including a group of “ghost companies” and a network of interests abroad.

Lan met her husband Eric Chu Nap Kee in the early 90s when he was looking for investment opportunities, state media said. The Hong Kong billionaire was on Thursday sentenced to nine years in prison.

– How did she steal so much? –

Lan was found guilty on three counts: bribery, violating banking regulations and embezzlement.

Between 2012 and 2022, she stole $12.5 billion from SCB, setting up fake loan applications to withdraw money from the bank, in which she owned a 90 percent stake.

She ordered SCB officers to transfer the money to shell companies and then moved the money around or withdrew as cash to cover her wrongdoing, court judges said, according to state media.

Between February 2019 and September 2022, her driver transported the equivalent of more than $4.4 billion in cash from SCB’s headquarters in Ho Chi Minh City to her nearby home and Van Thinh Phat’s head office.

She also took advantage of a government plan to restructure SCB to use the bank as a cash cow after merging two lenders with it, the judges said.

Police identified more than 40,000 victims of the scam, all of them SCB bondholders.

Former employees at the State Bank of Vietnam — the central bank — were bribed with millions of dollars to hide SCB’s wrongdoings and poor financial performance.

Do Thi Nhan, the former head of the central bank’s inspection team, was sentenced to life in prison for accepting $5.2 million in cash given to her in three Styrofoam boxes.

– How was she exposed? –

Lan and the others were arrested as part of the country’s “blazing furnace” graft crackdown that has swept up numerous corrupt officials and members of the country’s business elite.

The sweep has been driven by powerful Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, and more than 4,400 people have been indicted across more than 1,700 graft cases since 2021.

But the scale of Thursday’s trial was unprecedented. Evidence was in 104 boxes weighing a total of six tonnes, and 200 defence lawyers were involved. 

Cameras inside the court — which are not always allowed in Vietnam — showed Lan fidgeting and looking anxious ahead of the verdict, while many of her co-accused sat with their heads bowed.

However, the corruption purge has dealt a blow to Vietnam’s economy and analysts say that some foreign investors have been spooked, even as they have broadly praised what they see as the campaign’s aim to improve rule of law.

Trong is still urging the crackdown to speed up.

AFP
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With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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