Vietnam jails former health minister over Covid test bribes

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HANOI — Vietnam’s former health minister was sentenced to 18 years in prison on Friday (Jan 12) while dozens of other health officials and business people were handed jail terms for their roles in selling overpriced Covid-19 test kits.

The Viet A scandal, named for the semi-private firm that made the kits, allegedly saw senior officials make multiple million-dollar deals to supply hospitals and local communities with testing equipment at vastly inflated prices.

Vietnam initially stood out for its effective response to the Covid-19 pandemic, but officials were later caught pocketing money from companies organising repatriation flights and community testing.

After a 10-day trial in Hanoi, a court found almost all of the 38 defendants guilty of bribery, abuse of power or other charges. 

Nguyen Thanh Long, health minister from 2020 to 2022, was sentenced to 18 years for taking bribes worth US$2.25 million (S$3 million).

Earlier in the week, in his final speech before the court, Long said he “regretted and felt painful for his violation”.

“I hope that the laws would give leniency to those defendants who were doctors and healthcare workers with wrongdoings in this case,” Long was quoted as saying by state media. 

His lawyer had argued that the former minister did not ask for the bribes but was merely given the money “as thanks after a lucrative business”.

Former Hanoi mayor Chu Ngoc Anh was given three years for “violating regulations on management of state assets”.

Other officials and business people were given between 15 years and two years suspended.

The scam was estimated to have netted some US$172 million for the firm that made the overpriced test kits — US$34 million of which was allegedly used to bribe officials.

The company’s CEO, Phan Quoc Viet, was given 29 years on Friday for bribery and violating bidding regulations — a sentence that came after a military court had already handed him 25 years in December. 

He will serve a maximum of 30 years in accordance with Vietnamese law.     

In recent years, Vietnam has ramped up an anti-graft drive targeting corrupt officials and members of the business elite.

The sweep has been driven by powerful Communist Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong, who last November demanded the purge press ahead “faster and in a more efficient manner”.

More than 3,500 people have been indicted across more than 1,300 graft cases since 2021. 

In 2022, the country’s rubber-stamp national assembly removed Pham Binh Minh and Vu Duc Dam from their positions as deputy prime ministers.

Minh was the foreign affairs minister who took the lead in organising flights to bring Vietnamese home from overseas, while Dam was in charge of handling the Covid-19 response within the country’s borders.

The purge also brought down President Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who “took political responsibility” for various officials’ shortcomings, a party central committee statement said at the time. AFP

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