Billionaire faces the death penalty over largest bank fraud in history

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One of the largest bank frauds in history has an entire nation transfixed.

The suspect is accused of embezzled $19 billion — and causing $41 billion in damages. That’s about six per cent of Vietnam’s GDP in 2023.

Truong My Lan, a top Vietnamese property tycoon, is facing a potential death sentence.

On Thursday as she and her co-accused await verdicts in one of the biggest corruption cases in history, with an estimated $41 billion ($US27 billion) in damages.

Lan, chair of major developer Van Thinh Phat, is accused of swindling cash from Saigon Commercial Bank (SCB) over a decade.

More than a dozen police cars and vans carrying the defendants — a list that includes former central bankers, ex-government officials and previous SCB executives — arrived at the colonial-era courthouse in the early morning.

After a five-week trial in business hub Ho Chi Minh City, Lan and 85 others face verdicts and sentencing on charges ranging from bribery and abuse of power to appropriation and violations of banking law.

Lan allegedly embezzled $19 billion ($US12.5 billion), but prosecutors said Thursday the total damages caused by the scam now amounted to $US27 billion.

She has denied the charges and blamed her subordinates.

Most of the accused sat in the courtroom with their heads bowed Thursday, although Lan could be seen fidgeting and looking up from the front row.

Prosecutors have called for Lan to face the death sentence, an unusually severe punishment in such a case.

She and the others were arrested as part of a national corruption crackdown that has swept up numerous officials and members of Vietnam’s business elite in recent years.

Lan appeared to say in final remarks to the court last week that she had thoughts of suicide.

“In my desperation, I thought of death,” she said, according to state media. “I am so angry that I was stupid enough to get involved in this very fierce business environment — the banking sector — which I have little knowledge of.”

Protests

Hundreds of people began to stage protests in the capital Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, a relatively rare occurrence in the one-party communist state, after Lan’s arrest in October 2022.

Police have identified around 42,000 victims of the scandal, which has shocked the Southeast Asian country.

Lan, who is married to a wealthy Hong Kong businessman also on trial, is accused of setting up fake loan applications to withdraw money from SCB, in which she owned a 90 per cent stake.

Police say the scam’s victims are all SCB bondholders who cannot withdraw their money and have not received interest or principal payments since Lan’s arrest.

Prosecutors said during the trial they had seized more than 1,000 properties belonging to Lan.

Authorities have also said $5.2 million allegedly given by Lan and some SCB bankers to state officials to conceal the bank’s violations and poor financial situation was the largest-ever bribe recorded in Vietnam.

The woman who was offered the bribe — Do Thi Nhan, the former head of the State Bank of Vietnam’s inspection team — said during the trial the cash was handed to her in styrofoam boxes by the former CEO of SCB, Vo Tan Van.

After realising they contained money, Nhan refused the boxes but Van declined to take them back, state media reported.

More than 4,400 people have been indicted during Vietnam’s corruption crackdown, across more than 1,700 graft cases, since 2021.

A top Vietnamese luxury property tycoon — Do Anh Dung, head of the Tan Hoang Minh group — was sentenced to eight years in prison last month after he was found guilty of cheating thousands of investors in a $355 million bond scam.