HANOI (AFP) — Vietnam has sentenced eight heroin traffickers to death, a court official said Friday, raising to more than 40 the number of drug smugglers to receive the death penalty over the past month.
Heroin, most of it from the 'Golden Triangle' countries of Myanmar and Laos, is the most popular illegal drug in Vietnam and -- because it is often injected with shared needles -- the leading cause of HIV infections, experts say.
In the latest mass trial, the Hanoi people's court also jailed 29 others, 18 of them for life, for trafficking heroin across the country's mountainous north over two years, a court clerk told AFP.
Working a common trafficking route, the gang had smuggled the heroin from the northwestern Son La province near the Lao border to the capital Hanoi, the port of Haiphong and to Ho Chi Minh City, the court heard.
Communist Vietnam, like most Asian countries, imposes harsh penalties for drug smugglers. Those caught with over 600 grammes of heroin or 20 kilogrammes of opium, its raw material, are sentenced to death by firing squad.
Since late November, Vietnamese courts have sentenced at least 43 people to death and jailed scores more in several group trials against heroin smuggling syndicates, often extended family and clan networks.
Vietnam has a centuries-old history of opium use, and cultivation was vastly expanded under French colonial rule. During the Vietnam war, heroin flows from the nearby Golden Triangle to Western markets rose sharply.
The post-war government mostly eradicated large-scale opium cultivation and in 2004 estimated that little more than 30 hectares of poppy fields remained, mostly grown by remote and poor ethnic minority villagers.
However, Vietnam's proximity to Myanmar and Laos -- still the second and third largest opium producers after Afghanistan -- and its porous borders and long coastline have made it a major transit country, say experts.
Domestic drug abuse in Vietnam has risen sharply since the 1990s, especially in the cities, where "heroin continues to be the preferred drug among younger drug abusers," according to the UN Office for Drugs and Crime Control.
Opium smoking had long given way to heroin smoking and increasingly injection, which now causes about 60 percent of known HIV infections, the UN agency said in its 2005 country report.
Vietnam's police say they have uncovered more than 8,200 drug trafficking cases involving 12,500 offenders this year.
Foreigners involved came mostly from Laos, Cambodia, Australia, China, the United States and Taiwan, the Ministry of Public Security said according to a report by the Vietnam News Agency.
"Police admitted that drug trafficking into Vietnam is increasing but actions to prevent and stop the negative phenomenon along the borders... remained on a limited scale," the state media report said.
Vietnam's mountainous northwest accounted for almost half of the confiscated heroin, while the Chinese border area was identified as another "hotbed."
In the Lao-border province of Dien Bien, authorities have recently launched a major drive against the rise in heroin smuggling, the state-run English language Vietnam News daily reported Friday.
Villagers in the province had been asked to sign pledges not to grow opium poppy, not to use opium, and not to help smugglers carry or sell drugs.
The report said traffickers had become more sophisticated and dangerous, with some ready to attack police with firearms and grenades.
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