Two young Vietnamese men were handed prison sentences by a Ho Chi Minh City court on Wednesday after stealing a loaf of sweetbread last year, a case that sparked debate whether the punishment fits the crime of shoplifting a quick snack.
Nguyen Hoang Tuan and On Thanh Tan, both 18, were charged with "stealing assets,” shortly after they were arrested in October 2015.
Tuan was sentenced to ten months in prison while Tan got eight months and 20 days. Tan was released after the court ruling as his jail term equated his time spent in custody.
The People’s Procuracy in Thu Duc District first suggested jail terms of three to ten years for the men for their “attempt to steal assets with dangerous means,” but the maximum term was soon reduced to five years, and one year at yesterday’s trial.
According to court documents, the duo had been playing online games at an Internet café in District 9 overnight until the morning of October 18, 2015, when they decided to go to 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, 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.
Many have expressed their disappointment at the sentencing, believing that the young men, both minors when the crime was committed, deserved a much lighter punishment.
Lai Thi Yen, the store owner whose snacks were stolen by the duo, did not attend the court. She previously withdrew her complaint against the men.
Those who oppose the punishment liken the case to Jean Valjean’s plight 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.
Those sympathizing with the men believe that the bread theft of Tuan and Tan stem from a similar hardship, considering both men were unemployed when the crime was committed.
Many see the sentencing as hypocritical since a large number of high-profile cases in which officials have caused enormous losses to the state budget only result in the perpetrators being handed slight punishments or warnings.