A Vietnamese court has sentenced 54 people to prison in one of the largest-ever bribery and corruption cases, including numerous high-ranking officials and a former minister.
The defendants, according to the judges, demanded money from passengers on repatriation flights during the Covid-19 pandemic.
A former minister who accepted nearly $900,000 (£700,000) in bribery was given a 16-year prison term.
The court’s decision comes amid a major anti-graft drive across the government.
Several former officials, including several senior ambassadors and a former deputy foreign minister, were found guilty of accepting, offering, or participating in bribes, fraud, and abusing their positions of authority by the Hanoi court after a trial that lasted more than two weeks.
The defendants were said to have participated in a conspiracy in which diplomats and business people stole money from Vietnamese citizens living overseas who wanted to return home on repatriation flights when commercial travel was unavailable due to the epidemic.
The defendants “must be punished seriously,” the court ruled.
State-run newspaper VTC reported that 25 state officials were found guilty of taking pay-offs worth a total of $7.4m (£5.8m).
Life sentences were handed out to four former high-ranking officials at the ministries of foreign affairs, health and public security, while ten business people and civilians received suspended sentences.
Former secretary to the deputy health minister, Pham Trung Kien and former deputy minister of foreign affairs, To Anh Dung, were some of the most high-profile names caught up in the scandal.
Prosecutors had sought the death penalty for Kien, who received a life sentence for being the recipient of 253 bribes in an 11-month period worth a total of $1.8m (£1.4m).
Nearly 800 flights were organised by the government in early 2020 to bring citizens back from around the world at a time when Vietnam had closed its borders to nearly all travellers except returning citizens.
The convictions occur in the midst of a significant anti-corruption drive that has seen hundreds of officials under investigation. Several people, including two deputy prime ministers, were made to resign.
Former president Nguyen Xuan Phuc was abruptly forced to step down in January of this year due to suspicions of corruption in the government’s response to the Covid-19 outbreak.