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Tough jail terms for Viet baby smugglers


Source: Agence France-Presse

People have been jailed in Vietnam for up to 20 years for smuggling 199 Vietnamese babies abroad for adoption, according to a court official.

Ringleader Le Quoc Binh, who brokered the adoptions between 1995 and 1997, and Bui Van Khanh, a population registrar in the southern Vietnamese province of An Giang, were both jailed for 20 years, the official said.

Pham Thanh Hai, director of Long Xuyen centre for the caring of elderly people and motherless children, received an eight-year term, the official at An Giang provincial court said.

Six others, including a provincial hospital doctor who helped Binh locate babies, received terms of between one and seven years for receiving bribes.

Prosecutors said Binh's network approached poor Vietnamese families and young mothers in hospitals offering to care for their children at the Long Xuyen Centre.

After putting their babies in the orphanage, parents later discovered their children had been placed for adoption abroad.

The case has raised international concern about lax laws and dishonest brokers who dupe both natural and adoptive foreign parents seeking to adopt children from Vietnam, and the stiff penalty has been welcomed.

"If the government makes it clear these sorts of things lead to a heavy penalty then people will be more careful, because the situation is pretty grim, for them it's just a business," said a foreign lawyer and father of an adopted child.

The lawyer said he and his wife arranged the adoption without going through a broker, after discovering it was impossible to find a legitimate one.

"It's rotten to the core. We talked to a couple of agents through fairly reputable adoption agencies and you would have no idea of how they got the child. I assume they pay for them," he added.

The majority of the 199 babies were aged under one and came from poor farming families and provincial hospitals.

They were sold to foreigners who believed the "fixer" fees, often several thousand US dollars, were necessary to cover legal and registration costs. The 199 babies were sold for a total of about US$112,000 (about HK$873,600), the court official said.

The trial originally opened in May, with 11 people accused of child trafficking and paying and receiving bribes.

Similar cases have come to light in other parts of the country, and the phenomenon appears to be widespread, the lawyer said.

But on the eve of the verdict, the trial was unexpectedly halted ostensibly to allow prosecutors to gather more evidence.

Observers of the Vietnamese justice system said the delay was arranged to enable some defendants to raise enough money or call in favours to evade conviction.

Subsequently, charges against the head of the local Red Cross and a justice official were dropped, and the two, along with two policemen, received non-criminal sanctions. The resumed trial lasted just three days.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said it had no connection with the local chapter.

Trafficking in babies has been rising sharply, especially in southern Vietnam, where racketeers sell to Europeans and Australians. However, most babies in Vietnam are adopted legally, with numbers rising into the thousands.

Adoption of Vietnamese children by foreigners is legal provided they are bona fide orphans, or with the written consent of the mother.

2000 Jan 25