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Bread theft reminiscent of Jean Valjean stirs legal debate in Vietnam

Monday, May 09, 2016, 15:00 GMT+7
Bread theft reminiscent of Jean Valjean stirs legal debate in Vietnam
Two young men stand in court in this drawing illustration.

As two 18-year-old Vietnamese men await their court appearance charged with stealing US$2 worth of snacks, including one loaf of sweetbread, debates are raging about whether the act is serious enough to send these minors to jail.

Nguyen Hoang Tuan and On Thanh Tan, both born in 1998, are facing jail terms if convicted by a court in Ho Chi Minh City on May 17.

According to the court documents, the duo had been playing online games at an Internet café in District 9 overnight until the morning of October 18, when they decided to go look for jobs on their motorbike.

The men wanted to first fill their empty stomachs, but had no money. They decided to stop by a grocery store in Thu Duc District, with Tuan entering the shop to buy a loaf of sweetbread, and six packs of snacks, including dried bananas, peanuts and sugar-coated tamarind.

When the storekeeper said the foods would cost VND45,000 ($2), Tuan rushed outside and fled away with Tan ready on his bike. However, local residents managed to catch them shortly after they ran.

Thu Duc police handled the case and the district’s procuracy later indicted them for “stealing assets.”

The case has sparked a debate about whether the indictment is too tough a penalty for the young men, who committed the theft when they were unemployed and starving.

Many Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper readers have sympathy for the young men, and cited Jean Valjean, a fictional character in Victor Hugo's 1862 classic novel Les Misérables, to support their argument.

In the novel, the protagonist is imprisoned for stealing bread to feed his sister's children during a time of economic depression, and Tuoi Tre readers believe that the bread theft of Tuan and Tan stem from a similar hardship.

On the other hand, supporters of the prosecutors' decision say the two should be strictly punished, saying "one who steals a calf may later steal a cow."

Others say that the two should not be shown sympathy as they planned the theft, and their hunger stemmed from having played games overnight, which they deem an intolerable reason.

From a professional perspective

Do Hai Binh, from the Ho Chi Minh City Bar Association, said even though there are enough elements to charge the men, they should receive a lighter penalty.

The lawyer said the two should “receive punishment other than a criminal charge” because their act “does no harm to society,” apparently referring to the small value of the assets stolen.

Lawyer Nguyen Thi Hong Lien, deputy chairwoman of the Ho Chi Minh City Bar Association, said the indictment should be reviewed, given the accused were still minors when the act was committed.

Even when appearing in court next week, the two are still only 18 years old, Lien pressed. The lawyer added that the motivation for their crime was only to alleviate their hunger, which shows they are not “dangerous and professional criminals.”

Nguyen Van Chung, head of the People’s Procuracy in District 8, Ho Chi Minh City, said the court will consider the fact that the indicted are juveniles when handing down their verdict.

Vu Hoai Nam, judge of the criminal court at the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Court, said while it is impossible for Tuan and Tan to get a non-custodial penalty, the court will consider lighter punishment such as a suspended sentence.

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