German court tries Vietnam man over 'Cold War-style' abduction

Berlin (AFP) –


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.

The accused -- a Vietnamese-Czech man identified only as Long N.H., 47 -- allegedly rented and delivered the van that was used in last July's abduction of a fugitive Vietnamese state company official in a Berlin park.

The kidnapped man, Trinh Xuan Thanh, 52, 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".

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.

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

Prosecuors say Long N.H. drove the van from Prague to Berlin and back, but was not at the wheel during the kidnapping.

He was arrested in the Czech Republic on August 12 and extradited on August 23 to Germany, where he is the only suspect in custody.

- Violent struggle -

Once among thousands of so-called guest workers in communist East Germany, he was later denied asylum and resettled in Prague, where he most recently ran a currency exchange and transfer business.

Prosecutors charge that he rented a Volkswagen Multivan T5 there and drove it to Berlin, where several armed men dragged Thanh and his female companion into the vehicle, which he allegedly returned to Prague the same day.

Long N.H., who had also allegedly rented a BMW X5 sedan that had been used for surveillance, is charged with working for a foreign intelligence service and aiding in an abduction, which each carry up to 10 years in prison.

His defence lawyer Stephan Bonell said Long N.H. had been told he was renting the vehicles "for touristic purposes".

"He knew nothing," Bonell said. "He was the sacrificial pawn."

Bonell also criticised the German government for not following through on Vietnam's 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.

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 later 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.