BERLIN (Reuters) - The mysterious abduction of a Vietnamese former oil executive in broad daylight from a leafy district of Berlin is reminiscent of Cold War disappearances in the then divided German capital.
In a highly unusual move, Berlin has explicitly accused Vietnam of kidnapping Trinh Xuan Thanh, a former employee of PetroVietnam who faces charges of financial mismanagement in Vietnam and was seeking asylum in Germany.
His German lawyer, Victor Pfaff, suspected something was wrong when 51-year-old Thanh failed to show up for a hearing on his asylum request on July 24.
“It was totally untypical for him not to come, so I immediately knew something had happened,” Pfaff told Reuters.
He said witnesses had described how armed men violently bundled a man and a woman into a car with Czech registration plates at about 10:40 am on July 23 from outside the Sheraton hotel in the affluent Tiergarten district. Thanh had been staying at the hotel in western Berlin.
The car sped off and there were no sightings of Thanh until he showed up in communist Vietnam on Monday. He was shown on state television, which said he had turned himself in after a 10-month manhunt.
“I wasn’t thinking maturely and decided to hide and during that time I realised I need to return to face the truth and ... admit my faults and apologise,” Thanh, said in a prime-time bulletin on Vietnam Television.
“Because of fear I decided to hide in Germany, where I lived a precarious and anxious life,” the television station quoted Thanh as saying in a signed confession dated July 31.
This, his lawyer says, is impossible to imagine.
“He would never have done that. He was scared of going back and what the consequences might be,” said Pfaff. A trial and punishment, possibly even the death penalty, may have awaited him, the lawyer said.
It was unclear who the woman with him was when he was abducted and what became of her.
Thanh arrived in Germany in August 2016, after a four-day odyssey that took him to Laos, Thailand and Turkey, said Pfaff, who said Thanh’s wife and two children were also in Berlin while another son remained in Vietnam.
The former executive appeared to be leading a comfortable life in Berlin. He was pictured in German newspapers sitting on a park bench, smiling and looking relaxed and well-turned out in a dark blue overcoat, with a suit and tie.
Pfaff said he hoped to work here, probably as a businessman.
The pictures of Thanh on state television were in contrast to those in Germany. Sitting behind a desk in a maroon polo shirt, he appeared drawn, serious and dishevelled. The confident air he once displayed was gone.
Thanh came to public attention in Vietnam in mid-2016 when he was found to have a luxury Lexus car with a government license plate, which caused an outcry in a country where officials are expected to live modestly.
German officials say the account of the kidnapping - which media have compared to Soviet abductions before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 - is plausible, although they cannot independently verify the circumstances.
Germany’s foreign ministry is outraged and bluntly blamed the Vietnamese intelligence service and embassy, describing it as an unprecedented and glaring breach of German and international law.
It is particularly irksome to German officials as the possibility of extradition was discussed between senior officials from the two countries on the sidelines of a G20 summit last month.
Around 15,000 Vietnamese people live in Berlin. Many stayed on in the city, the frontier of the Cold War, after coming to Communist East Berlin in the 1980s as short-term workers, agreed in a deal between the two states.
Additional reporting by Mai Nguyen in Hanoi and Matthew Tostevin; Reporting by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Giles Elgood