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FILE PHOTO: PetroVietnam's former chairman Phung Dinh Thuc walks out of a court for lunch, in Hanoi, Vietnam January 8, 2018. REUTERS/Kham/File Photo(reuters_tickers)
By Mi Nguyen and Alex Dobuzinskis
HANOI/LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Vietnam is gripped by its highest profile corruption trial in memory, but some spectators are questioning whether the Communist Party elite in the dock were charged because of infighting in the ruling class or a crackdown on abuse of office.
Onlookers have gathered at the Hanoi People's Court since Monday for a glimpse of Dinh La Thang, the first politburo member to be arrested in decades, and Trinh Xuan Thanh, a state oil firm executive who Germany says was kidnapped from Berlin by Vietnamese agents.
Led to the court in handcuffs along with 20 other defendants, their simple clothes and rough haircuts contrasted with their former well-groomed images as scions of the establishment.
They face charges related to losses of hundreds of millions of dollars at state oil giant PetroVietnam. Reuters was unable to contact either the defendants or the lawyers representing them for comment.
"This trial has raised a voice against corruption, but is not effective enough," said Vu Van Thuong, a 60-year-old retired businessman who was among those outside the court. "Even if embezzled properties are returned, if policies don't change, then this country will remain poor."
Similar sentiments were expressed by a Facebook user called Quyet Le Quoc, who wrote: "Who believes this is a corruption crackdown?"
"Almost everyone knows that two sides are fighting for power," the writer said, adding that the accused deserved to be put on trial.
The government says the accused are being tried for mismanagement, embezzlement or both.
On the first day of the trial, curious crowds began gathering around the courtroom before dawn and had to be kept back by police. The only reporters allowed inside the courtroom are from state-linked organisations and news about the trial tops bulletins on the strictly-controlled government media.
Vietnam's fight against corruption intensified last year after the security establishment gained greater sway under 73 year-old Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong.
Scores of officials and executives have been arrested, most of them from PetroVietnam and the banking sector in the Communist-ruled country of over 90 million people. [L4N1P32YQ]
The PetroVietnam trial is taking place at the same time as a separate trial in the commercial capital Ho Chi Minh City, where a fraud case involving Vietnam's Construction Bank is being heard.
WINNERS AND LOSERS
Many of the most prominent figures at the trial in Hanoi were aligned with former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who lost out to Trong in a 2016 power struggle.
While Dung was noted for the high profile ties of his family and lieutenants to big business in one of Southeast Asia's most dynamic economies, Trong is a party stalwart with a much more modest personal reputation.
Among the Vietnamese diaspora, details of the trial are being lapped up - particularly in the United States, home to an estimated 1.3 million Vietnamese immigrants.
In Vietnamese-American communities in the United States, such as Little Saigon in Orange County, California, many residents fled as refugees during or soon after the U.S. war in Vietnam ended in 1975 - bringing with them an enduring hatred of communism.
Few saw the trial as being the start of real change, to end corruption in a country that ranked 113 of 176 countries on Transparency International's most recent index of corruption perceptions. But there was scant sign of sympathy for those in the dock.
"Political observers within the community see this as basically Mafia members, Communist Mafia members, using their own legal system and their kangaroo courts to whack each other," said Van Tran, a former Republican member of the California legislature.
Vietnamese-language papers and radio stations in hubs such as Westminster, California, and Houston, Texas, are following the trial and have an avid audience.
"Fighting corruption is meaningless when you don't have a checks and balance system," said Tuyet Ngoc Dinh, who came to the United States as a teenager in 1989 and lives in Louisville, Kentucky.
Longstanding anti-communists saw signs of internal division in the trials - signs welcomed by Huu Vo, 67, president of the Federation of Vietnamese American Communities of USA and a resident of Pomona, California.
"When there's a power struggle, they grow weaker," he said.
(Editing by Matthew Tostevin and Raju Gopalakrishnan)