Police Attacked First in Vietnam’s Dong Tam Clash, Witness Reports Say

Police attacked first in a deadly clash over a land dispute in Hanoi’s Dong Tam commune on Jan. 9 that claimed the lives of an elderly community leader and three police officers, a new report drawn from multiple witness reports says, contradicting official accounts.

Released on Thursday and circulated to human rights organizations and foreign embassies in Vietnam, the report, published in English and titled “Fighting Over Senh Field: A Report on the Dong Tam Village Attack,” says that villagers fought back only after being assaulted by police in the latest flare-up in years of tensions over construction of a military airport near the capital.

State media reports quoting official statements by the Ministry of Public Security say villagers first attacked police with grenades, petrol bombs, and knives, but witnesses to the clash describe “thousands of police officers” first bursting into the village firing tear gas and rubber bullets.

Police then blocked off pathways and alleys and beat villagers “indiscriminately, including women and old people,” the report says, calling the assault “possibly the bloodiest land dispute in Vietnam in the last ten years.”

“Witnesses describe ‘thousands of police officers rushing into the village’ using flash grenades, firing tear gas, shooting rubber bullets, blocking off all pathways and alleys, and “beating villagers indiscriminately, including women and old people,” the report says.

Village leader Le Dinh Kinh, 84, was shot and killed early in the assault by police who swarmed his home after first cutting Dong Tam’s internet and telephone lines before beginning their 4:00 a.m. assault, according to the report

Journalist Pham Doan Trang, one of the founders of the Dong Tam Task Force of activists and journalists who produced the report, noted in a Facebook post that the group’s report was released only seven days after the Jan. 9 attack despite a clampdown by authorities on information coming from the area.

Social media crackdown

Meanwhile, in a statement on Thursday, human rights group Amnesty International said that three activists have now been arrested in connection with social media posts about the clash in Dong Tam, “while dozens of Facebook users say they [have] experienced restrictions on their activity.”

“The Vietnamese government’s heavy-handed efforts to censor discussion of this land dispute are the latest example of its campaign to assert control over online content,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s regional director.

In its Jan. 16 statement, the rights group voiced fears for 22 Dong Tam villagers now in police custody and facing charges of “resisting law enforcement officers” and “murder.”

“Amnesty International has documented appalling detention conditions in Vietnam, with evidence of prisoners being tortured and otherwise ill-treated, routinely held incommunicado and in solitary confinement, kept in squalid conditions, and denied medical care, clean water, and fresh air,” the rights group said.

Police officers honored

Meanwhile, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Public Security Minister To Lam, and 500 police officers and other attendees paid tribute on Thursday to the three police officers killed during the Jan. 9 assault on Dong Tam, state media said.

Senior Lieutenant-Colonel Nguyen Huy Thinh, 48, Captain Pham Cong Huy, 27, and Senior Lieutenant Duong Duc Hoang Quan, 26, were posthumously awarded the Feat of Arms Order and certificates citing their “great contribution to the nation.”

All three were killed in the Dong Tham assault when they were attacked by petrol bombs and fell into a concrete shaft as they ran between two houses, according to state media reports.

While all land in Vietnam is ultimately held by the state, land confiscations have become a flashpoint as residents accuse the government of pushing small landholders aside in favor of lucrative real estate projects, and of paying too little in compensation to those whose land is taken.

Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Huynh Le. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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