BERLIN (Reuters) - A Vietnamese man appeared in a German court on Tuesday, accused of helping to kidnap a former oil executive in Berlin last year on behalf of Vietnam's secret services and smuggle him back to his homeland where he has been jailed for life for corruption.
Prosecutors say the 47-year-old helped in abducting Trinh Xuan Thanh in broad daylight on a Berlin street together with a female companion in July last year in a case which soured relations between Germany and Vietnam.
The man, identified as Long N.H., is accused of taking part in secret service activity and assisting in deprivation of personal freedom. If convicted, he could be jailed for up to seven and a half years.
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"The defendant is alleged to have rented two vehicles as part of this intelligence operation. One was used to observe the victims, the other for the actual kidnapping," said public prosecutor Lienhard Weiss outside the court room.
Weiss said the accused later drove both vehicles back to Prague in the Czech Republic where he had hired them.
"Based on our information this operation was planned and carried out by the Vietnamese secret service with the participation of members of the Vietnamese embassy in Berlin," he said.
Thanh, a former high flyer in Vietnam who was accused of mismanagement and causing losses at PetroVietnam Construction JSC, has been given two life sentences in jail in Vietnam since being smuggled back home.
He had been seeking asylum in Germany and his sudden disappearance in Berlin caused Germany to accuse Vietnam of breaching international law. Berlin summoned the Vietnamese ambassador and ordered the official representative of the Vietnamese intelligence service to leave.
Long, who also has Czech citizenship, watched proceedings in the courtroom from behind a glass barrier.
Defense lawyer Stephan Bonell said his client was not involved and called for him to be acquitted.
Thanh's case was part of a government anti-corruption drive, in which more than 100 people, many from state-owned enterprises in the banking or energy sectors have been prosecuted, jailed and, in some cases, given death sentences.
Petra Schlagenhauf, a lawyer representing Thanh, said Hanoi had not expected the kidnapping to be noticed.
"We have to assume that the Vietnamese secret service felt so secure that they thought they could carry out such an operation without anybody noticing or caring about it. That was a big mistake," she said.
The case is expected to take weeks, possibly months.
(Reporting by Reuters Television; Additional reporting by James Pearson in Hanoi; Writing by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Richard Balmforth)