- The Washington Times - Friday, November 10, 2006

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — Vietnam defused a political storm yesterday 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 being formally charged, after being accused of plotting to take over radio airwaves in their native country to call for the overthrow of 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 a month, and the Americans will have 10 days to leave the country.

The case had attracted Washington’s attention just before Mr. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice planned to make their first visit to Hanoi for the 21-nation Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. It is the biggest international event Vietnam has ever hosted.

The seven faced punishment 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.”

Washington had pressured Vietnam to hold a speedy and fair trial, and the issue would likely have spilled over into the APEC gathering without yesterday’s settlement. The case had also been taken up by Sen. Mel Martinez, Florida Republican, 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 and clear Vietnam’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO).

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 insisted after the one-day trial that outside pressure did not influence the decision.

The WTO vote is vital to Vietnam’s economy. Mr. Bush wants to get the trade bill approved before he arrives in 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, a specialist on Vietnamese politics at the Australian Defense Force Academy, said Hanoi’s communist leadership decided to proceed with the trial to send two messages. One was 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,’ ” Mr. Thayer said in a telephone interview.

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

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