Vietnam hero fish farmer lost appeal

HANOI - A Vietnamese fish farmer who became a folk hero after he used homemade weapons to resist forced eviction has lost his appeal against a five-year jail term for attempted murder, a court clerk said Wednesday.

Doan Van Vuon and his family rose to prominence when they armed themselves with makeshift shotguns and landmines to resist eviction by local authorities.

Land rights are a flashpoint issue in the communist country, where land is wholly owned by the state and rights of use are not always clear or protected.

Millions of rural tenants such as Vuon are vulnerable to the whims of local officials, who can reclaim land for vaguely defined "public interest" reasons. Experts say this leads to widespread corruption.

The rare act of defiance by the 50-year-old former soldier triggered a nationwide outpouring of support, with even Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung branding the family's eviction in January 2012 "illegal".

But Vuon and three of his male relatives still received between two and five years in prison during their trial in April this year, after seven policemen were injured in the stand-off at the farm in Tien Lang district, 90 kilometres (55 miles) east of Hanoi.

At an appeal hearing in Hai Phong City, which ended Tuesday, the court upheld Vuon's sentence -- and that of his brother -- for attempted murder, a court clerk told AFP.

Farmer Vuon told the court he was driven to take drastic measures after more conventional attempts to resist the eviction orders failed.

"I sent complaint letters -- some 100 kilograms worth of letters -- to local authorities, provincial authorities," but no solution was forthcoming, he said in court, according to a report Tuesday in a newspaper published by Ho Chi Minh City's Justice Department.

"I told my brothers not to injure the eviction forces... the guns, if shot from a distance of 25 to 30 metres, would not have killed people even with a direct hit," he was quoted as saying.

The appeal court reduced sentences for two of Vuon's relatives, the court clerk added, declining to give further details to AFP.

The court saw "no new details to eliminate the sentences, as proposed by Vuon and (his brother) Doan Van Quy," a report on the news site VNExpress said.

"At the trial, the defendants could not show evidence that they were attacked before (they retaliated)," a prosecutor said, according to the report.

The two other defendants at the appeal trial "were given a reduction for their honesty and regrets" of five and nine months, VNExpress said.

Vuon's five-year sentence was seen by analysts as surprisingly lenient -- attempted murder charges can carry the death penalty -- and an attempt by the government to diffuse public anger over the case in a country where more than 70 per cent of all complaints lodged with authorities concern land.

"If a population is on the side of someone who has broken the law, then the magistrate or the judge is in a very difficult position," said Professor Adam Fforde, a Vietnam expert at Australia's Victoria University.

In the authoritarian country, where the government severely limits freedoms of expression and association, there are daily protests in the capital Hanoi over land grabs.

Twenty-year "land use rights certificates" issued nationwide in 1993, as the country introduced market reforms, will expire this year.

The government has not made clear what will happen next.

Public opinion is firmly on the side of the land protesters. One popular blog is named Farmer Vuon "Person of the Year 2012".