A Vietnamese court has convicted seven people, three U.S. citizens and four Vietnamese, on terrorism charges. They will all be out of jail in a month, however, and the Americans will be required to leave Vietnam quickly. The case had become a stumbling block to US-Vietnamese trade relations on the eve of next week's Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Hanoi.
The People's Court of Ho Chi Minh City on Friday found all seven defendants guilty. Some were charged with plotting to use smuggled radio equipment to broadcast calls for an anti-government uprising.
Others were charged with aiding the plot's alleged mastermind, an activist named Nguyen Huu Chanh who runs an anti-Communist group, based in California. Chanh's group has allegedly tried to bomb the Vietnamese Embassy in Thailand and several targets inside Vietnam.
The seven defendants, all ethnic Vientamese, were sentenced to 15 months in prison, with credit for time served. That means all will be out within a month.
Lawyer Vo Duc Trung represented U.S. citizen Huynh Bich Lien. Trung says Lien and fellow U.S. citizens Cuc Foshee and Le Van Binh will be released shortly and required to return to the U.S.
The four Vietnamese nationals will also be released shortly, but will face several years of house arrest.
The case attracted attention in the United States, largely because one of those convicted, 58-year-old Cuc Foshee, is a prominent member of the Vietnamese-American community in Orlando, Florida. Foshee had been held without charges since September 2005. In October, Florida Senator Mel Martinez asked the Bush administration to press Vietnam to release her.
Martinez has blocked a bill before Congress that would grant Vietnam permanent normal trade relations, something the Vietnamese want badly. The House of Representatives is scheduled to take up the bill on Monday.
The bill was introduced in Congress in June. First, it was held up by senators from garment-industry states, worried that Vietnamese garment exports would cost American jobs. Then came Martinez's demand to release Foshee.
Last week, Vietnam abruptly announced that it would try Foshee and her co-conspirators on terrorism charges.
Foshee's deportation to the U.S. could clear the way for Martinez to drop his opposition to the bill. On Thursday, President Bush said permanent normal trade relations for Vietnam was one of the top foreign policy priorities in Congress.
Vietnam counts the U.S. as its Number-One trading partner, and the government here wants Congress to pass the bill before Mr. Bush arrives in Hanoi for next week's summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, or APEC.
The Vietnamese government has repeatedly voiced its concern over the bill. Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Le Cong Phung was asked about it at a press conference Thursday. Phung says, if there is no solution by the time Mr. Bush arrives, the two sides must continue to try, and the American side must work harder to resolve its domestic affairs.
The trade bill is necessary because Vietnam is joining the World Trade Organization, and WTO rules oblige all member countries to treat each other equally. But under a U.S. law dating from the 1970's, Communist countries like Vietnam are subject to sanctions.
As Adam Sitkoff of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hanoi explains, the bill is actually a formality.
"Vietnam has already received from the U.S. Congress normal trade relations status, on an annual, renewable basis, since 1998," he said. "All PNTR is, is making that permanent, as is the U.S. obligation under WTO."
The administration hopes the House can move the trade bill forward on Monday, so that when Mr. Bush meets Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in Hanoi next Friday, he does not arrive empty-handed.