Vietnam risks German backlash

The prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, personally requested the extradition of the fugitive during his meeting with Mrs Merkel in early July.

Vietnam is risking an economic and diplomatic backlash from Germany by refusing Berlin’s demand to return the former oil executive, Trinh Xuan Thanh.

It continues to insist that he returned home voluntarily to face charges of economic mismanagement, dismissing Germany’s allegation that he was abducted by Vietnamese agents from a park in Berlin.

The Communist party leadership in Hanoi has little room for compromise with Germany because of its close association with a political campaign against Mr Thanh.

Backing down now would involve a damaging loss of face, even though the economic and diplomatic costs of defying Germany could prove high.

Further steps

Germany is a major trading partner and aid donor and has the potential to derail ratification of the EU-Vietnam free trade deal.

The foreign ministry said on Wednesday that it was considering what further steps to take following its earlier expulsion of an intelligence agent from the Vietnamese embassy.

Mr Thanh’s case for political asylum in Germany was based on his allegation that the charges against him were political in nature and that he could never get a fair trial.

“He was looking forward to his asylum hearing and had a realistic chance of getting it,” said one of his lawyers in Germany, Petra Schlagenhauf.

“He was going to argue that the economic charges against him were just a pretext. The campaign of disinformation against him was very strong,” she said.

Case for asylum

In the event, he was bundled into a car by armed men the day before the planned hearing. He wasn’t seen again until his appearance on television in Hanoi more than a week later.

Mr Thanh had made a pledge in September last year, after his escape to Germany, that he would return home if he could be guaranteed a fair trial.

The statement appears to have been an attempt to bolster his case for asylum rather than a serious offer to turn himself in.

The top Vietnamese leadership had made no secret of its determination to arrest Mr Thanh.

The Secretary-General of the Communist party, Nguyen Phu Trong, had told constituents in Hanoi earlier this year that “all means” would be used to bring him to justice.

Mr Trong has staked his prestige on an anti-corruption campaign aimed at cleaning up graft in the Communist party and restoring its prestige with a disenchanted public.

Independent bloggers, however, suggest the campaign is more about power struggles inside the party, and some have compared it to Xi Jinping’s drive against his opponents in China.

Ultimate target

Mr Thanh was closely associated with the former Politburo member, Dinh La Thang, who was ousted from his position in May.

Both officials had close ties with the former prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, who could be the ultimate target of the campaign after losing out to Mr Trong in a struggle for the party leadership last year.

Whatever the political machinations, the leadership left no doubt that arresting Mr Thanh was a top priority.

The current prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, personally requested his extradition during a meeting with Angela Merkel at the G20 summit in July.

To then resort, just days later, to a Cold War style kidnap in the heart of Berlin is seen by Germany as an affront of the highest order.

“This very regrettable and grave matter is in no way closed,” said the German Foreign Minister, Sigma Gabriel, in his comments on Wednesday.

The abduction has severely undermined confidence in Vietnam’s commitment to international norms and the rule of law.

Germany signed a strategic partnership agreement with Vietnam in 2011 and has been one of Hanoi’s most enthusiastic backers in the EU.

Germany, and other European countries, will now be reassessing their earlier judgements.

They may also pay more attention to another source of disquiet about Vietnam, the current campaign to harass, round up and prosecute pro-democracy activists and anyone else brave enough to question the country’s authoritarian leaders.