Vietnam calms political storm, issues light sentences to 3 Americans charged with terrorism


Friday, November 10th 2006, 5:48 am
By: News On 6


HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam (AP) _ Vietnam diffused a political storm Friday by issuing light sentences to three Vietnamese-Americans convicted of terrorism, preventing the closely watched case from clouding President Bush's visit next week.

The defendants had been held since September 2005 without charges after being accused of plotting to take over radio airwaves in their native country to call for an uprising to overthrow the communist government.

They, along with four Vietnamese nationals accused of the same crime, were sentenced by a judge to 15 months in prison, with credit for time served. All will be released in one month, and the Americans will have 10 days to leave the country.

The case had attracted Washington's attention just before Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice planned to make their first visit to Hanoi, for the 21-nation Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. It's Vietnam's biggest-ever event.

The seven faced punishments ranging from 12 years in prison to death by firing squad. Prosecutors instead sought lesser terms, saying the defendants had repented and had no previous criminal records.

``I am certainly pleased that they will be sent home,'' said U.S. Ambassador Michael Marine. ``These individuals have been held for quite some time. That is allowed under Vietnamese law, but 14 months without being brought to trial is a long time for anyone. So, we're glad to see that portion over with.''

Marine spoke just a few blocks away from the French colonial-style courthouse in southern Ho Chi Minh City where the sentences were read. He was attending a ceremony in which Intel Corp. announced plans to invest $1 billion in Vietnam to expand a chip assembly and testing plant, positive news that followed Vietnam's acceptance into the World Trade Organization on Tuesday.

But much of that glow had already been overshadowed by headlines detailing the uncertain fate of Thuong Nguyen Foshee, 58, of Orlando, Fla.; Le Van Binh, 31, of Tampa, Fla.; and Huynh Bich Lien, 51, of San Gabriel, Calif.

Washington had pressured Vietnam to hold a speedy and fair trial, and the issue would likely have spilled over into APEC without Friday's conclusion. The case had also attracted attention from Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., who raised the issue with the Bush administration and reportedly vowed to block a key vote in Congress that would normalize trade relations between the former foes.

It is highly unusual for Vietnam to give a lenient sentence for national security crimes, especially in such a high-profile case. But Presiding Judge Vu Phi Long told reporters after the one-day trial that outside pressure did not influence the decision.

``I know that Vietnam is about to host the APEC summit, and I know that the U.S. Congress is about to debate giving (normalized trade relations) to Vietnam,'' he said. ``But when we judge, we follow Vietnamese law and we judge independently.''

The trade vote is of great importance to Vietnam. Without it, U.S. companies will not be able to enjoy all the benefits of Vietnam's new WTO agreement. Bush had been hoping to get the bill approved before he came to Hanoi for the APEC summit. Resolution of the terrorism case might increase his chances, although Congress will be in session only briefly before he departs next week.

Carlyle Thayer, an expert on Vietnamese politics at the Australian Defense Force Academy, said he suspects the country decided to proceed with the trial to send two messages. One is an internal warning that Vietnam must remain vigilant against potential dangers.

``The second one is, 'Come on United States, we've given so much away to get into the WTO because of your pressures, we're bending over backward to accommodate you on the war on terror _ be consistent with us,''' Thayer told The Associated Press by telephone.

Hanoi wants the United States to take action against Vietnamese living in America who are viewed as terrorists by their homeland, Thayer said.

An indictment said the plan to take over radio airwaves was hatched by the Government of Free Vietnam, a California-based organization that the Vietnamese government considers a terrorist group.

It is one of many anti-communist groups founded by Vietnamese refugees in the United States. Many of its leaders are soldiers of the former South Vietnamese Army who fled Vietnam after the war ended in 1975.

The Government of Free Vietnam group is run by Chanh Huu ``Tony'' Nguyen, who is wanted in Vietnam for failed plots to bomb the Vietnamese Embassy in Thailand and buildings in Vietnam.

Nguyen, a permanent U.S. resident, was arrested at Vietnam's request in April while traveling in South Korea. He was held for three months before being released to the U.S.

In addition to the Americans, Vietnamese nationals Tran Dat Phuong, 65; brothers Ho Van Giau, 59, and Ho Van Hien, 38; and Cao Tri, 35, were convicted and issued the same sentence. Cao Tri is also a U.S. resident.

Under questioning from the judge, some of the defendants acknowledged carrying radio equipment to Cambodia on behalf of the Government of Free Vietnam, while others described themselves as employees at an adoption agency.