On June 29, 2009, upon conviction of running a Ponzi scheme that bamboozled investors of at least $18 billion, Bernie Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in federal prison. The sentence, the maximum prosecutors had requested, came at a time of public anger against bankers who had shown uninhibited avarice before the financial collapse. The punishment was almost unanimously hailed: Finally, at least one corrupt financier had gotten his comeuppance.
“The sentence imposed today recognizes the significance of Bernard Madoff’s crimes,” the prosecuting U.S. attorney said. The judge called Madoff’s crimes “extraordinarily evil.”
By Vietnamese standards, Madoff got off easy.
In the past five months, at least three Vietnamese bankers have been sentenced to death — though their crimes amount to just 1 percent of Madoff’s haul.
Last month, a 57-year-old director of a Vietnam Development Bank was sentenced to death after he and 12 others approved counterfeit loans in the amount of $89 million. For inking those contracts, he got a BMW, a diamond ring, and $5.5 million in kickbacks. His death sentence follows similar punishments meted out to two other bankers: One was sent to death row in November for his part in a $25 million scam, and the other, banker Duong Chi Dung, got his in December.
The sentences offer a sharp contrast between how the West handles financial crimes — prison terms, sometimes just a fine — and how some East Asian countries do it. China also executes those convicted of economic crimes, though it’s unclear how many.
In Vietnam, executions have historically been gruesome. A firing squad stuffs the convicted’s mouth with lemons. Then, if customs described by Death Penalty Worldwide are true, he’s tied to a pole and shot by five to seven men. “As the prisoner is dying,” the organization reports, “an officer fires a pistol shot through the condemned’s ear.”
The country has recently tried to switch to lethal injections, but as GlobalPost’s Patrick Winn reports, that plan has been derailed by the European Union, which doesn’t ship chemicals used in executions to countries that administer capital justice.
So do corrupt bankers deserve a firing squad? In Vietnam, yes. Under the nation’s penal code, there are 29 offenses that constitute such reprisal, and included in that number are five economic crimes: fraud, embezzlement, smuggling, counterfeiting and offering bribes. Drug crimes are also punishable by death, according to Amnesty International.
What becomes clear upon reviewing the cases is that what warrants death in Vietnam would only be years in prison — or no prison at all — in the United States. One man failed to repay $6 million in loans. Another woman got it because she embezzled $658,000. Another man was sent to death row for just $90,000.
It’s unclear how many have been executed. Vietnam, like China, has a notoriously opaque capital punishment system. In January 2004, the government decreed that statistics on executions were a “state secret.” Still, according to The Associated Press, there are currently 678 people languishing on the country’s death row.
Outside observers say the executions are more show than deterrence. Vietnam, according to Transparency International, is a nation of endemic corruption.
“It’s a message to those in this game to be less greedy and that business as usual is getting out of hand,” Adam McCarty, an economist in Hanoi, told Global Post. “The message to people in the system is this: Your chances of getting caught are increasing. Don’t just rely on big people above you. Because some of these [men] would have had big people above them. And it didn’t help them.”