A defector seeking asylum in Germany. A Berlin kidnapping. A high-level meeting in Central Europe. A covert extraction. A speed-trial. Multiple life sentences.
Despite what you might think, this isn’t the plot of the upcoming Cold War spy thriller, but the summary of an incident that occurred last year and has brought relations between Germany, Vietnam and Slovakia at an all-time low.
Last week, Slovakia’s Foreign Minister told reporters he may completely freeze bilateral ties with Vietnam if the Southeast Asian country didn’t provide credible explanations regarding the kidnapping of Vietnamese oil executive Trinh Xuan Thanh last year in Berlin. “Unless we get a plausible explanation from Vietnam of how their kidnapped citizen was transported to Vietnam, our bilateral relations will be frozen”, Slovak authorities announced, signalling the matter won’t be put to rest anytime soon and will continue to worsen the relations between the two countries with strong historical ties.
What happened in July 2017?
In July 2017, German media reported that Vietnamese citizen Trinh Xuan Thanh, a former oil executive who had been seeking asylum in Germany and faced corruption charges in his country, was abducted in Berlin by Vietnamese secret services before being covertly transported back to Hanoi. He has since been found guilty of corruption during his time as head of state-run PetroVietnam Construction and sentenced to two life sentences.
The way he was spirited back to Vietnam is what lies at the heart of the controversy: according to German prosecutors, M. Thanh was transported by van from Berlin and then secretly transferred to a car part of the official motorcade of Vietnam’s public security minister To Lam, then on official visit in Slovakia, on its way to Bratislava airport. Covertly added to the Vietnamese delegation, M. Thanh was then flown out of the country with the rest of the official suite… on a Slovak government plane – made available by their host allegedly due to last-minute changes to their travel itinerary.
German police claimed that the meeting between To Lam and then-Slovak Interior Minister Robert Kalinak “had only one purpose”: “to transfer M. Thanh relatively smoothly from the Schengen area to Vietnam”. While Vietnamese officials claim that Mr. Thanh returned voluntarily, Slovak authorities initially tried to distance themselves from the incident and denied allegations, brought forward by German media, that they were involved in the abduction.
What happened since?
But matters weren’t put to rest, and relations between the three parties involved only aggravated over the months. “The hesitation of the Slovak authorities to launch an investigation does not contribute to increasing the trustworthiness of the police, law enforcement bodies and the ability of the state to secure justice”, the Slovak Spectator argued, and only contributed to increase public scrutiny on the issue.
While Germany accused Vietnam of breaching international law, a German court recently sentenced to nearly four years in jail a Vietnamese man who confessed to helping his country’s intelligence services in the abduction.
Slovak President Kiska called this incident “an international scandal”: “we are witnessing obscurantism and misleading of the public and making excuses to the German authorities. But do we really have to learn about what happened in Slovakia from German investigators?” he questioned.
Quoted by TASR news agency, Slovakia’s Interior Ministry said that “if the information provided by the German authorities is confirmed, we will view that as a manifestation of gross unfairness on the part of the Vietnamese partner, as an abuse of our hospitality for other than friendly relations, and as a destabilization of the well-functioning bilateral relations between the two countries”.
Although Slovakia’s Foreign Minister met with his Vietnamese counterpart on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly last month, the country has yet to hear back from the ASEAN country. Hence the most recent comments from Slovak authorities, aimed at stepping up diplomatic pressure on Hanoi: “Slovakia is a serious state and will draw resolute diplomatic consequences if the suspicions that Vietnam is facing prove to be true”.