Activists and religious followers have asked the Vietnamese government to respect private property ownership after several farmers received severe sentences including the death penalty.

On July 12, the High-level People's Court in Ho Chi Minh City upheld the death penalty on Dang Van Hien, a farmer who was found guilty of murder amid land disputes between farmers and a private company.

Hien was convicted of shooting to death three men and injuring 13 others from the Long Son Trade and Investment Company.

The higher court reduced the sentences of two other farmers — Ninh Viet Binh and Ha Van Truong — from 20 years to 18 years and from 12 years to nine years respectively.

The state-run Tuoitre newspaper reported that at court the three defendants from Dak Nong province's Tuy Duc district pleaded guilty to murder but said they were driven to the brink by the company's workers.

The newspaper said that in 2008 the province gave the company over 1,000 hectares of forestland in the Quang Truc commune to carry out an agriculture and forestry project.

Land disputes are the main source of protests in one-party communist Vietnam, where dissent is rarely tolerated. State-run media report that up to 70 percent of people's complaints nationwide relate to squabbles over land.

Conflicts between local farmers, including the defendants, and the company grew after the latter bulldozed people's farms to grab land. It also allegedly refused to pay them any compensation and used gangsters to threaten people.

Farmers petitioned local authorities to deal with their cases for years but say they did not receive any real help.

On Oct. 23, 2016, the company is said to have sent scores of workers and watchmen armed with knives, shields and tractors to destroy coffee trees, cashew trees and more crops grown by Hien and other farmers.

Hien claims he fired a warning shot into the air to stop them from entering his farm but the watchmen responded by throwing rocks at him. He said he then hid in his house and fired more shots at his attackers.

Ninh and Binh also shot at the alleged trespassers. The three defendants killed three men and injured 13 people.

Nguyen Van Quynh, the lawyer who defended Hien at court, said his client's sentence was unusually severe and that the judges should not have convicted him of brazen murder given the mitigating circumstances and that he was acting in self-defense.

After the trial, hundreds of people rallied against the verdict.

"The sentence imposed on Hien is a defamation of justice and is being used to serve the government's political aims," a coalition of 30 religious, human rights and civil society groups said in a statement signed by 120 people.

They accused the judges of not properly reviewing the facts of the case. Furthermore, they failed to take into account that Hien voluntarily surrendered, which normally results in a reduced sentence, they added.

"We demand the government investigate who granted this private company the right to illegally grab people's farmland. But so far nothing has been done," they said.

Father Anthony Le Ngoc Thanh, a rights advocate, described the imposition of the death penalty as an "inhumane policy," adding Vietnamese law does not properly protect people's private land ownership rights.

"Such unjust sentences and rampant corruption will only end when civilians' private property ownership rights are recognized," Father Thanh said.

On July 13, Hien reportedly sent President Tran Dai Quang a letter seeking to commute his sentence. He argued that he had no choice but to resort to violence as his family was being attacked by a weapon-wielding mob.

The president had not responded as of July 17 but he is legally obligated to issue a response within seven days.

Catholic lawyer Le Cong Dinh said on social media that he expected the government would ultimately show leniency in Hien's case. He based this on the belief that the harsh judgment was meant to send a warning to others in similar situations.

Dinh said the judges even reminded the defendants to seek an amnesty from President Quang while the case was ongoing.

"The president will pardon him as a way to win over the public," he said, adding any other decision could provoke unrest as the public is frustrated at the continuing wave of illegal land grabs.

Union of Catholic Asian News - July 17, 2018