To catch a killer 

Published: 18/02/2011 05:00



After a month of innuendo, Long An locals express doubts that an aggressive local reporter died at the hands of his wife

The charred bed of reporter Le Hoang Hung of Nguoi Lao Dong (Laborer) newspaper. He died of his wounds on January 29 after being set on fire ten days earlier.

On January 19, someone set fire to Le Hoang Hung, 51, while he was asleep in his bed.

His wife, 40-year-old Tran Thuy Lieu, told police that Hung burst into the room she and their two daughters were sleeping in, covered in flames.

Her neighbor and brother allegedly climbed into the locked home from an adjoining balcony and put out the inferno on Hung’s bed with a blanket.

Lieu claimed she extinguished the fire covering her husband using a showerhead.

At around 1 a.m., the family called a taxi to their four-story house in a sparsely-populated development in Tan An Town, the capital city of Long An Province, 50 kilometers to the southwest of Ho Chi Minh City.

Hung was rushed to the Long An General Hospital. Two hours later, he was transferred to Cho Ray Hospital in HCMC.

Doctors spent 10 days treating Hung, who had sustained severe burns on 60 percent of his body - to no avail.

Hung died covered head to toe in bandages.

Hung was a father, a Communist Party member, a former soldier in the Vietnamese army and the son of a war martyr. He had also spent the last 32 years of his life as a dogged reporter.

Friends say that more than 400 people attended his funeral.

Trial by newspaper

Almost immediately after Hung’s death, papers all over Vietnam focused suspicion on his wife, Lieu.

Reporter Le Hoang Hung of Nguoi Lao Dong (Laborer) newspaper

Citing anonymous sources and police reports, these stories chalked the crime up to a bitter domestic dispute about household finances.

Absent from much of this reporting was a picture of Hung as a bold reporter who took risks in his work and challenged authority.

On February 8, the Nguoi Lao Dong (Laborer) newspaper reported that Lieu had implored her husband to sell their house to repay her gambling debts, but he refused. Her total debt was said to be up to VND1.5 billion ($75,000), the paper said.

The following day, several newspapers reported that police had identified the prime suspect in the case.

In a February 11 interview, Lieu admitted to gambling at casinos in Cambodia in over twenty trips across the border.

“After building our house, we had to pay off our debts,” she told the Nong Thon Ngay Nay newspaper. “I thought it would be easy to make that money, gambling, if we did our research. But I lost more than I won. I only traveled to casinos in the day when he was not at home. Now that he’s dead I feel guilty and ashamed [that I tried to hide it from him].”

Following the interview, nearly every major paper reported that police had interrogated Lieu every day, for 12 hours a day, in the week following the funeral. Police later dismissed the claim and told reporters that they had questioned 20 other suspects in the case.

On Tuesday (February 15), the Ministry of Public Security dispatched a team to work with investigators in Long An and help facilitate an investigation.

As of press time, no arrests have been made in relation to Hung’s murder.

‘A good man with many enemies’

On the final evening of Hung’s two-day funeral, a tent lined with wreaths stood outside the open foray of his home.

Tran Thuy Lieu, the wife of reporter Le Hoang Hung, stands next to an alter smoldering with incense sticks at his funeral

As the sky turned an eerie purple, family and friends shuffled in and out of the house as a band played Buddhist dirges to help guide Hung’s soul into the afterlife.

In keeping with tradition, everyone paid respect to Lieu, who stood red-eyed and worn next to an alter smoldering with incense sticks.

Outside, family and friends sat at a dozen round tables, sipping tea and eating.

Nguyen Phan Dau, a correspondent of the Hanoi-based Lao Dong (Labor) newspaper in Long An Province took a break from photographing well-wishers to sit down for a cigarette.

Dau and Hung had worked together closely on special projects and investigations.

“I can tell you his family was an unhappy one but not to that level,” he said. “I think that someone who suffered from his reporting has taken revenge.”

Dau describes Hung as a diligent and professional reporter who was not afraid of danger.

For the past nine years, Hung had worked at the Nguoi Lao Dong (Laborer) newspaper and covered news in Long An, Tien Giang and Ben Tre provinces in the Mekong Delta under the pen name Tran Hai Nguyen.

“Hung and I exposed rampant smuggling near Long An’s border with Cambodia and he was given an anonymous deaths threat,” he said. “It’s really dangerous being a reporter here.”

The morning before his attack, Hung confronted a local court judge whom sources had accused of accepting bribes.

Dau said that Hung had received claims that the judge had received exorbitant bribes from a rich man in Long An’s Ben Luc District in exchange for a favorable ruling in his pending divorce.

Hung and the judge quarreled before he left the office, Dau says.

Stepping on toes

Hung was no stranger to conflict. Western media sources have sometimes painted Hung as a rogue journalist.


Journalist set on fire while asleep at home

Important clues found in journalist’s murder: police

He did, indeed, enterprise his own local stories and managed to step on a few toes.

In some cases, however, Hung re-reported the findings of official sources.

In 2009, he reported that hundreds of farmers had filled out petitions accusing Tan Tru District authorities of offering meager compensation for land that they would appropriate for an industrial park.

Soon afterward, Hung wrote about the Thu Thua District’s plan to build a cemetery on the province’s most fertile rice paddies.

The provincial administration eventually rejected the district proposal.

In August 2010, Hung reported findings that 111 officials in Long An Province had used forged high school diplomas to win promotions.

On the day he died, Nguoi Lao Dong published Hung’s last story which detailed an unresolved murder that had taken place in Duc Hoa District, last September. Hung named two men as having murdered a man who had been asked to resolve a family argument. Hung wondered, in his story, why the two suspects had not been placed in police custody during the course of the police investigation - as is customary in Vietnam.

‘Protector of the wronged’

“Hung has always been a good journalist,” said Truong Van Tem, 49, a member of the Long An People’s Council, the local legislature. “He has worked to protect the rights of residents who had suffered from wrongs at the hands of government officials.”

Tem once enjoyed a prominent position as chairman of the Vam Co Waterway Transport Cooperative.

In 1995, he was arrested and charged with official corruption. After just one month in police custody, Tem was released, but the charges stuck.

Two years later, Hung found Tem living in a palm and bamboo hut near a river. He helped champion the man’s innocence.

In the coming years, papers all over the region picked up Tem’s story.

In 2007, provincial prosecutors officially exonerated Tem of wrongdoing and extended him an official apology and financial compensation for his ordeal.

“His career has hurt many [powerful people],” Tem said. “It’s no surprise that someone would want to take a revenge on him.”

Chau Van Cap, a retired police chief in the nearby town of Tam Vu, didn’t think much of Hung’s reporting.

“I know him well. He wrote a number of stories in my town several years ago,” said Cap, who now serves as a judicial official at the town people’s committee. “In one story, he championed the rights of small traders at Tam Vu Market who felt they were entitled to use some stalls. It was an unfair report. The traders he fought for actually had no rights over the stalls.”

Cap said he didn’t think that Lieu was guilty.

“Speaking as a policeman, I don’t think that the wife is the culprit,” he told Thanh Nien Weekly. “But I am sure that the police’s professional investigation methods will identify the assailant, soon.”

Others feared that the prolonged focus on Lieu may have allowed the killer[s] to slip away.

Reported by Calvin Godfrey – Minh Hung

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