Nguyen Huu Hue, the 52-year-old director of a commercial company, was arrested by Hanoi police in July 2019 while transporting seven frozen tiger carcasses in his car. A subsequent investigation revealed that Hue had been the ringleader of a transnational network trafficking rare and endangered species for years.
He would go to Laos to buy tiger carcasses, freeze them and transport them to Vietnam, to be used in tiger wine and tiger-bone glue. Each carcass could weigh up to 300 kilograms, authorities said. The ring had been busted several times in various places, but Hue’s underlings would always take the fall for him.
In early 2020, the Hanoi City Court sentenced Hue to six years in prison. Two men arrested with him – Phan Van Vui, 34, and Ho Anh Tu, 28 – were each jailed for five years for violating regulations on the protection of endangered and rare species. (Find details of the case using the #WildEye Asia court tracking tool here.)
But Education for Nature Vietnam (ENV), a non-governmental organization based in Hanoi, said the six-year prison term for a “tiger-trafficking tycoon” like Hue is way below the maximum penalty of 15 years for wildlife offenses and will not serve as a deterrent in the context of wildlife crime in Vietnam.
Data collected and analyzed by #WildEye Asia on court trials from 2018-2020 shows that it’s not rare in Vietnam for wildlife criminals to receive light court sentences, despite the fact that over that time period penalties for such crimes have increased.
Criminal law gets an upgrade
In 2015 the Vietnamese government decided to amend the criminal law. Three years later, in 2018, the law came into effect, and since then the authorities have stepped up their efforts to tackle wildlife crime. Under the new law, the maximum penalty for wildlife crime offenses has been raised to a fine of VND1.5 billion (about US$65,400) and/or 15 years’ imprisonment for individuals, up from VND500-million (about $21,800) and/or seven years’ imprisonment under the previous criminal code.
Bui Thi Ha, vice director and head of policy and legislation at ENV, said the penalty for wildlife crimes provided in Vietnamese law was now among highest in the world. Nevertheless, having such severe penalties on the books does not mean these crimes would be efficiently tackled at their roots, she said.
The primary reason, in her opinion, that those who commit wildlife crimes still get off lightly is the lack of focus by government authorities on law enforcement and prosecution. While the former criminal law provided for a maximum prison sentence of seven years, ENV found that only one case resulted in such a sentence.
Since 2018, there has not been any case where the maximum sentence of 15 years has been applied.
There are a number of cases where sentences of 10 to 13 years in prison have been handed down, Ha said. However, this sentencing was not applied in all cases, and there remained many suspended sentences and mild punishments despite the serious nature of the crimes committed.
Organized crime overlooked
A case in Nha Trang, Khanh Hoa Province, exemplifies Ha's point. At the end of 2014, this beach city popular among international tourists, drew the attention of wildlife trafficking networks and observers when local police discovered the world’s largest cemetery of turtle carapaces hidden in warehouses.
A local man named Hoang Tuan Hai was found to have stored about 7,000 dead sea turtles and 3,855 clam shells, including 780 giant clam shells listed as at highest risk of extinction, in the warehouses. At his trial, which took place three years after the discovery, Hai denied the charges, making him ineligible to plead extenuating circumstances that could have allowed for a reduced sentence. Even so, in 2018 he was sentenced to just four years and six months in prison.
“Many authorities still do not take wildlife crime seriously enough," said Ha. "They simply think this type of violation relates to only one individual crime, not organized crime that occurs along with other crimes, such as money laundering and corruption, leaving long-term, serious consequences for biodiversity and the environment."
This view is shared by Hoang Quang Luc, deputy chief judge of Quang Binh People’s Court. Quang Binh is a province that possesses the largest and most diverse forest area in Vietnam and where wildlife protection violations are common. In a report published in the People’s Court Magazine, Luc argued that courts have a tendency to give light sentences for charges of wildlife crimes.
Between the beginning of 2018 and mid-2020, the number of offenders given suspended sentences accounted for one-third of prosecuted cases in Quang Binh. Luc said during the court trial the authorities created or emphasised extenuating circumstances, such as sincere declaration, sincere repentance, guilty without damage or with insignificant damage, offenders of remote and poor area residency, and so on, in order to end the case with the lowest or suspended sentences.
Official reports show that between 2018 and 2020 district courts in Quang Binh heard only 10 cases with 15 offenders implicated in wildlife code violations.
“This number is way too little to reflect what has really been going on in the province,” asserted Luc.
One reason for the low number of cases, he believes, is that the proceedings and criminal prosecutions in these types of crimes are often complicated, costly and demand immense time and effort. After any seizure, the authorities encounter difficulties in keeping the live wildlife and preserving the frozen body parts, in taking care of them, transporting them to vet clinics, rescue sites and shelters, and in releasing them back to nature. Thus, for a quicker solution and more cost savings, they often opt for a fine instead of criminal prosecution, Luc said.
According to ENV, between 2015 and 2020, there were 552 wildlife crime cases being prosecuted. In the two years after the new criminal law came into effect in 2018, the number of wildlife crime cases increased by 44% and the percentage of seizures that resulted in arrests jumped to 97.2% in the first six months of 2020.
Legal experts have rated current Vietnamese law as comprehensive enough to meet the national goals of wildlife crime prevention. What is now necessary is for them to be implemented using relevant laws and regulations to adjudicate the violations appropriately, experts said.
Last September, ENV sent recommendations to law enforcement authorities titled “10 Critical Actions for Combating Illegal Wildlife Trafficking.”
One of the critical actions recommended is to “eradicate corruption.”
Corruption can easily happen at different stages in the trafficking process, ENV says, from hand-slipping some cash to pass immigration checks at airports to issuing permits for commercial wildlife breeding farms that mask illegal wildlife imports or buying a reduced sentence or freedom in a court case.
Available data shows that wildlife trafficking is often operated by an organized crime ring, yet there have been few cases in which the leaders are arrested. The majority of those caught and prosecuted, the data shows, are the retailers, low-level syndicate members caught in the act during the transportation of goods.
Nguyen Van Thai, director of the nonprofit Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, said it was incredibly difficult to arrest “the tycoon” if the police investigation was not sustained for a long period. Thai, who has years of experience supporting investigations and attending the ensuing court trials, said he has witnessed many of those arrested and released repeating their offenses because they believed their bosses’ relationship with local authorities helped reduce the risk of being caught, and even if they were caught the charges and consequences would be insignificant.
“Many of those who had successfully avoided severe sentences, repeated their crimes after imprisonment,” Thai said.
Another stumbling block to better enforcement that has emerged, he added, is that officers in positions of authority are now trying to achieve the highest amount of seizures and arrests for wildlife crimes.
“Only by achieving a high number of arrests are they high-rated by their superior, which is believed among the officers to help prevent them from being assigned higher targets by their superiors in the following year,” he explained.
A core action Vietnam needs to take, Thai said, is to improve the understanding and awareness of wildlife protection among government officers as lots of them are currently using wildlife products, especially in localities covered with large forest areas.
“As long as the law enforcement authorities not only underestimate the costs of violating wildlife protection laws but even consume wildlife products themselves, it remains difficult to ensure the arrests and prosecution of wildlife crimes comply with the law,” said Thai.
Vo Kieu Bao Uyen is a freelance journalist based in Vietnam, and one of the top five journalists from Vietnam to receive the certificate of Journalism for an Equitable Asia Award 2019-2020.
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Banner image: One of the 7,000 dead sea turtles discovered by Nha Trang police in the case of Hoang Tuan Hai. In 2018 he was sentenced to four years and six months in jail / Photo courtesy ENV