Vu Ngoc Hai was in the cabinet until 1992 and remained a member of the Communist Party's central committee until last month. Eight other officials were also sentenced yesterday to prison terms of up to five years for their part in one of the worst corruption scandals to become public since Vietnam began moving towards a market economy.
Mr Hai was found guilty of ordering 4,000 tonnes of steel for a power project from an intermediary firm run by a relative instead of going through a state company, a fraud that prosecutors said cost the state 3.1bn dong (pounds 193,000). The project, the construction of a power line from a hydro-electric plant in the north to the faster-developing south, has been notorious for bribery and theft of materials, which is believed to have doubled the cost from the initial pounds 200m.
The authorities clearly intended the case as a warning to other officials. The proceedings were open to foreign journalists and were relayed by loudspeaker to the hundreds of people who failed to get into the courtroom. The prominence given to the six-day trial, which lasted twice the expected length because of defence challenges, was also believed to be aimed at reassuring foreign investors.
The Vietnamese leadership, in particular the Prime Minister, Vo Van Kiet, seems almost desperate to hold back the tide of corruption, which Mr Kiet recently said was 'undermining the state as well as the confidence of the people'. Last year an official newspaper estimated that more than a quarter of Vietnam's public works spending was lost because of corruption or negligence. 'Some cadres who managed to meet all challenges during the revolutionary struggle and the war are now unable to overcome flattery and bribes,' it said. The temptations are likely to multiply following the lifting this month of the American trade embargo, which has already brought US businessmen rushing into the country.