HANOI: Vietnam’s former health minister and 37 others went on trial in Hanoi on Wednesday (Jan 3) for their alleged roles in producing and distributing overpriced COVID-19 test kits.
The Viet A scandal, named for the semi-private firm that made the kits, allegedly saw senior officials facilitate multiple million-dollar deals to supply hospitals and local communities with testing equipment at vastly inflated prices.
Images on state media showed the defendants – all wearing masks – escorted by uniformed police to the court building in Hanoi.
Among them was former health minister Nguyen Thanh Long, who is accused of receiving bribes worth US$2.25 million, and former Hanoi mayor Chu Ngoc Anh, accused of “violating regulations on management of state assets”.
At least 100 officials and businesspeople have been arrested across the country in connection with the scandal.
The scam was estimated to have netted some US$172 million for Viet A – US$34 million of which was allegedly ploughed straight back into the bribing of officials.
According to state media, Viet A said it produced 8.7 million test kits during the pandemic, with the majority sent to medical facilities across the country.
At a military court in Hanoi last week, company CEO Phan Quoc Viet was sentenced to 25 years in prison for abuse of power and violating bidding regulations.
He faces further accusations at the three-week trial that began on Wednesday.
Vietnam was initially known worldwide for its effective measures in curbing the coronavirus pandemic.
But officials were discovered pocketing money from companies organising repatriation flights and community testing.
Last year, three officials were jailed for life while dozens of others were given lengthy jail terms for bribery and corruption charges over the repatriation flights.
And 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 – led by Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong – also brought down President Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who “took political responsibility” for various officials’ shortcomings, a party central committee statement said at the time.