Vietnam Sentences 3 Convicted Terrorists
Friday, November 10, 2006; 1:57 PM
HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam -- Vietnam defused 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 increase its investment in a planned chip assembly and testing plant to $1 billion from an initial $300 million, positive news that followed Vietnam's invitation to join 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.
"We are in contact with the government of Vietnam to arrange their return as soon as possible," U.S. State Department spokesman Kurtis Cooper said Friday.
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."