Portrayed by Vietnamese officials as a Lexus-driving tycoon who flaunted his wealth while costing the state millions of dollars, Trinh Xuan Thanh fled the country as he fell under the cross-hairs of a corruption crusade by communist authorities.
But his year-long sanctuary overseas was brought to an abrupt end last month in dramatic circumstances that could be culled from a spy thriller.
German media reported that Thanh, the former head of a state-linked construction firm, was bundled into a car on July 23 as he visited Tiergarten park in downtown Berlin by several armed Vietnamese security agents.
The alleged operation was unprecedented — even for an authoritarian country that closely tracks its critics at home and routinely throws them behind bars — and quickly triggered a diplomatic bust-up.
Germany, one of Vietnam’s largest European trading partners, on Wednesday decried the “scandalous violation” of its sovereignty, furiously dressing down the Vietnamese ambassador and booting out one of the country’s spies.
The official narrative from Vietnam is that Thanh, a former communist party member, turned himself in to authorities in Hanoi on Monday to face corruption charges, including one that carries the death penalty.
He appeared on state television Thursday evening, along with a written statement that said he was “scared” while on the run.
“I returned home because it’s been so tiring on the run for the past year. My family also encouraged me to come back to turn myself in, to get leniency for my past mistakes,” a stone-faced Thanh said in a clip broadcast on Vietnam Television.
Earlier Thursday, a spokeswoman for Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the German response to the matter “very regrettable”.
Observers say Thanh’s downfall is a sharp warning by an increasingly strident ruling communist party to its enemies and the business-political elite.
His slow-motion downfall began in 2013 at the end of his tenure as head of the powerful PetroVietnam Construction (PVC) — a subsidiary of the state oil giant.
He was shuffled into several other official jobs, including as the deputy head of Hau Giang province, a powerful government position in the south.
But in May 2016 photographs emerged of his luxury Lexus tagged with government plates — a brash violation of regulations on owning expensive cars while in office.
Local media ran the photos, prompting public outrage in a country where the communist party has been stung by graft allegations and is waging an…