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As Arsenal visits, Vietnam partner under scrutiny

July 16, 2013

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — The rubber and timber tycoon sponsoring Arsenal’s tour to Vietnam has dismissed allegations his companies are behind widespread environmental and social crimes, and suggested the fact the North London club had made the trip showed it was not that concerned also.

“You can see that the team has come, can’t you,” Doan Nguyen Duc said Monday, pointing to a hotel ballroom where the club’s top players, manager and CEO had just addressed a packed media conference. “Nothing has happened.”

The claims made by Global Witness in an investigation of the practices of the business group run by Duc come in the run-up to Arsenal’s match on Wednesday, the first by a premiership team in this Southeast Asian country. Some supporters in Britain have urged the club to sever its links with Duc, one of the richest men in Vietnam, and questioned why the club didn’t carry out a more thorough check on its his business group, Hoang Anh Gia Lai.

In its report in May, Global Witness documented what it said were systemic legal violations by HAGL’s rubber plantations in Cambodia and Laos during 2012. It alleged the company had acquiring vast amounts of land, almost five times the maximum legal size limit in Cambodia, and ignored environmental and social safeguards, devastating local livelihoods and forests.

Asked about the findings, Duc said “90 percent” of the information in the report was wrong, and added that the governments of Laos and Cambodia had issued statements supporting him.

Faced with a sharp drop in its share price on the release of the report, the company said it would investigate the claims and take action. But “nothing has changed” for the communities affected, said Megan MacInnes, campaign leader at Global Witness, which says it exposes natural-resource related corruption and associated environmental and human rights abuses.

“Chairman’s Duc’s renewed denial of the evidence appears to go back on the company’s commitment,” she said, adding Global Witness would raise the issue when it meets the company in September.

In a statement before Duc’s latest comments to The Associated Press, the club said it had discussed “the situation” with Duc’s company and Global Witness, and was “monitoring developments.” At the news conference, Arsenal manger Arsene Wenger and CEO Ivan Gazidis both thanked and praised Duc, who Wenger said he first met seven years ago.

As well as sponsoring the tour, Arsenal has partnered with Duc, who is the president of a local team, in establishing a training academy for youth players in central Vietnam.

Asia is a growing source of revenue for European football clubs, keen to expose their brand and sign deals with companies in a fast-developing region where foreign teams — not local ones — enjoy greater support. But the controversy surrounding Duc shows there are also reputational risks.

The British government has helped promote the tour as part of its mission to back British brands across the globe. It is also committed to promoting good corporate governance and anti-corruption. The British ambassador to Hanoi, who was present at the news conference, said it had been in discussions with Arsenal and HAGL.

“We are very keen to see Hoang Anh Gia Lai respond positively and credibly to Global Witness,” said Antony Stokes.

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