HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM, DEC. 3 -- A Vietnamese court convicted 17 anticommunist rebels on charges of high treason and banditry today and sentenced them to prison terms ranging from three years to life. Another defendant was stripped of his citizenship rights for five years.
The prosecution said the defendants were part of a group of nearly 200 heavily armed guerrillas intercepted in July and August by Vietnamese and Laotian forces in southern Laos while en route from Thailand to Vietnam to set up a resistance base. More than 100 insurgents were killed and 77 were captured in 23 clashes with Vietnamese and Laotian soldiers that ended on Aug. 28, according to the indictment.
The defendants were charged with sabotage on behalf of an anticommunist group called the National United Front for the Liberation of Vietnam, led by Hoang Co Minh, a rear admiral in the former South Vietnamese military that was defeated by communist forces in 1975. Six of the defendants were charged with killing 14 fellow guerrillas after they were wounded.
Today's verdict was handed down by five judges of the Supreme People's Court after a three-day trial in the municipal theater. A hall outside the theater displayed an assortment of captured AK47s and M16s, camouflaged uniforms, resistance newspapers, radio transmitters and photographs purporting to show the remains of the group's leader, former admiral Minh, after he was killed in one of the clashes in Laos.
The National United Front for the Liberation of Vietnam was set up in 1980 and published a political program calling for an end to the communist government and its alliance with the Soviet Union.
The court said the group planned to recruit and train guerrillas, set up "temporary liberated areas" in central Vietnam and then stage a general uprising to seize control of the country in 1992.
The indictment charged that the group was "encouraged and assisted" by "U.S. imperialists," but Foreign Ministry spokesman Trinh Xuan Lang said here yesterday that Vietnam has no evidence implicating the U.S. government.
The court also charged that Thai intelligence officers helped the guerrillas set up a base in northeastern Thailand and provided the guerrillas with food, uniforms and weapons. Both the United States and Thailand denied any ties to the guerrillas.
Most of the defendants said they fled Vietnam in the early 1980s and were recruited by the resistance movement from refugee camps in Thailand.
Five of the 77 captured guerrillas were exempted from prosecution because they provided information on the group's activities and reportedly "repented" for their involvement. Lang said the other 54 detainees would be tried after an investigation into their cases had been completed.
Today's sentences were less harsh than those imposed in a similar treason case in 1984 when the death penalty was ordered for several defendants.
Last month a Catholic priest and 22 other persons convicted of running a counterrevolutionary group received prison terms.