Prosecuting Vietnam’s Infamous Marine Turtle Kingpin

Education for Nature – Vietnam
In late 2014, law enforcement authorities discovered nearly ten tons of dead marine turtles following raids at six warehouses in the city of Nha Trang. The bust was the largest seizure of marine turtles in the world to date. The sight of more than 7,000 dead marine turtles brought the province of Khanh Hoa and Vietnam’s most notorious marine turtle traffickers, Hoang Manh Cuong and his brother, Hoang Tuan Hai to the world’s attention. The brothers were already known to police as significant figures in the illegal marine turtle trade, but this time the police had caught them red-handed. The raids followed nearly two years of work investigating a criminal network that hunts marine turtles and sells them through middlemen to Hoang Manh Cuong. The dead turtles are then processed and smuggled to China where they are purchased for their decorative shells. ENV estimates that tens of thousands of marine turtles have been slaughtered and trafficked through Cuong’s factory in the city of Nha Trang in Khanh Hoa province. The successful raids were a huge step forward in efforts to take down one of Vietnam’s biggest marine turtle traffickers. However, nearly a year has passed and neither Cuong nor his brother have seen the inside of a court room or a prison cell. “What remains to be seen is whether Khanh Hoa authorities will make an example of Cuong and his brother,” said Bui Thi Ha, ENV’s Vice-Director and head of the policy and legislation team, which works with senior government bodies on wildlife law. “This case is an opportunity for Vietnam to demonstrate to the world that we are serious about tackling criminal networks that engage in the illegal trade of endangered species.” Ms. Ha expressed concern about delays in the prosecution of Cuong and Hai in Khanh Hoa. “This delay calls into question the resolve of Khanh Hoa authorities to apply the law fairly when influential businessmen are involved,” stated Ha. “Had the subject been an ordinary citizen, and not a kingpin with rich and influential friends, he would have been in prison by now.”

Indifference of authorities: Marine turtles are not receiving the protection they need and deserve under the law.
On May 14, 2015, the Minister of Public Security, Tran Dai Quang, sent official letters of praise to authorities in Nghe An for their discovery of 31 pieces of rhino horn that were being smuggled through the province. The discovery resulted in the arrest and prosecution of the subject. Subsequently, law enforcement officers in Nghe An were rewarded for their role in the investigation
and prosecution processes. Likewise, tiger traders and smugglers are routinely arrested and prosecuted when caught trading tigers, such as the case in Nghe An in December 2014, which involved the seizure of a 120 kg frozen tiger by police and resulted in the prosecution of the subject. Marine turtles, rhinos, and tigers are classified as endangered species and afforded an equal level of protection under Vietnamese law. Therefore, Ms. Ha asks, “Why is a case involving 7,000 dead marine turtles being treated any differently than cases involving the seizure of 31 rhino horns or one tiger?”

Resistance at the provincial level?
Having followed the case from the very beginning, ENV appreciates the strong commitment shown by the Central Government in addressing the case. Over 10 correspondences including communications from the Communist Party Office, National Assembly Office and Delegates, President’s Office, Supreme Court, Government Office, Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, and Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development were sent to the Khanh Hoa authorities. The Supreme Procuracy and Ministry of Public Security instructed authorities in Khanh Hoa to prosecute the case according to Article 190 of the Penal Code. According to Lawyer Tran Thi Ngan, CEO of Legal Associates Hanoi Law Firm, “The marine turtle case in Khanh Hoa is not a complicated case since evidence along with Hai’s (Cuong’s brother) testimony show that he traded in marine turtles. Identification results show that the species confiscated are included in the list of endangered, precious, and rare species prioritized for protection issued with Decree 160”. She adds, “Mr. Hai should have been prosecuted immediately after authorities received the identification results.”
ENV’s position on dealing with major wildlife traffickers

Strict enforcement and punishment is the key to eradicating the criminal networks that trade marine turtles and other protected wildlife species. Arresting and prosecuting drivers and middlemen without tackling the heads of these networks is not good enough. Hoang Tuan Hai must be prosecuted, but so must Hoang Manh Cuong, who is believed to be the real kingpin of the marine turtle trade. In the February 20th, 2014 Directive 03/CT-TTg, the Prime Minister clearly stated Vietnam’s intent to act against organized criminals trading in endangered wildlife. The question is whether Khanh Hoa authorities will set an example for all of us to be proud of, or let this opportunity slip through their fingers and send a clear message to Vietnam’s top wildlife traffickers and kingpins that they are beyond the reach of the law. The crime that most damages endangered species isn’t hunting or consumption, but indifference on the part of authorities in applying laws that were passed to protect wildlife. ENV hopes that authorities will give marine turtles the protection that they need and deserve.

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