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Thai Court Frees Vietnamese Anti-Communist Activist

A Thai appeals court has freed a Vietnamese-American who hijacked a Thai plane in 2000 to drop anti-communist leaflets over Ho Chi Minh City. The Vietnamese government wanted to prosecute Ly Tong for threatening its national security. Ron Corben reports from Bangkok.

The appeals court ruled that Ly Tong's act had been purely political, and had not endangered Vietnam's national security. The court said Thailand did not extradite people to face political charges, and overturned a lower court decision to send Tong to Vietnam.

Tong was a pilot in the air force of the former South Vietnam. In 2000, while then-president Bill Clinton was on an official visit to Vietnam, Tong hijacked a small plane in the Thai resort town of Hua Hin. He flew the aircraft to Vietnam and dropped thousands of anti-government leaflets over Ho Chi Minh City.

Vietnam called Tong's actions dire violations of its national sovereignty. It wanted to try him for invading its airspace and threatening its national security.

But the Thai appeals court said he is free to go after spending five and a half years in a Thai prison. Tong greeted the court ruling with a smile and indicated that he would return to the United States, while his supporters in the courtroom applauded.

The director of Amnesty International Thailand, Boonthan Verawongse, called the decision a welcome display of judicial independence.

"We have to welcome the court decision to release the suspect," Boonthan said. "The judicial system must guarantee the people the fair trial."

Tong has already spent time in a Vietnamese prison. He was arrested in 1992 after hijacking an Air Vietnam airliner and forcing the pilot to fly over Ho Chi Minh City, again dropping leaflets calling for a popular uprising.

A Vietnamese court sentenced him that time to 20 years in prison, but he was released in 1998 under a government amnesty - two years before he hijacked the Thai plane.

Tong has also flown a plane over Cuba, where he dropped leaflets calling for a revolution against the communist government of Fidel Castro.