By MARGIE MASON Associated Press Writer
(AP) - HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam-A Vietnamese court convicted seven people, including three U.S. citizens, on terrorism charges Friday, saying the group had plotted to take over radio airwaves to call for an uprising against the communist government.
A judge sentenced all of them to 15 months in prison, with credit for time served. They will all be freed within one month, and the Americans will be required to leave the country within 10 days of their release.
The defendants, all of Vietnamese descent, had been jailed without charges for more than a year, prompting Washington to pressure Hanoi to move forward swiftly and fairly.
U.S. President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice plan to visit Vietnam next week for the 21-nation Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. Both countries had been eager to resolve the case before Vietnam's biggest-ever international event begins.
The charges were punishable by 12 years to execution, but prosecutors sought lesser terms, saying the defendants had repented and had no previous criminal records.
It is highly unusual for Vietnam to hand down a lenient sentence for national security crimes, especially in a high-profile case. The quick resolution to the diplomatically sensitive case comes amid APEC preparations and Vietnam's entrance into the World Trade Organization, approved this week.
Prosecutors read a 21-page indictment accusing the defendants of plotting to smuggle radio equipment to Vietnam to take over the airwaves and call for "a total uprising that would lead to violence and harm to the lives of civil servants and ordinary people."
"This is a terrorist case of a particularly serious nature," the indictment said.
It said the scheme was hatched by the "Government of Free Vietnam," a Garden Grove, California, organization that the Vietnamese government considers a terrorist group.
It is considered among the more virulent of the many anti-communist groups founded by Vietnamese refugees in the United States. Many of its leaders are soldiers of the former South Vietnamese Army who fled Vietnam after the war ended in 1975. The group is run by Chanh Huu Nguyen, wanted in Vietnam for failed plots to bomb the Vietnamese Embassy in Thailand and targets in Vietnam.
Prosecutors say the group set up an adoption agency in Cambodia as a front to disguise their plans.
Sentenced were U.S. citizens Thuong Nguyen Foshee, 58, of Orlando, Florida; Le Van Binh, 31, of Tampa, Florida; and Huynh Bich Lien "Linda," 51, of San Gabriel, California, along with Vietnamese citizens Tran Dat Phuong, 65; brothers Ho Van Giau, 59, and Ho Van Hien, 38, and 35-year-old Cao Tri - a U.S. resident who had been living in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Addressing the court before her sentencing, Foshee said, "I accidentally committed a mistake."
"I've been away from this country for too long," Foshee said. "I don't speak good Vietnamese and I do not know much about Vietnamese laws."
Earlier, under questioning from the judge, some of the defendants acknowledged carrying radio equipment to Cambodia on behalf of the Government of Free Vietnam. Others described themselves as employees of an adoption agency.
Foshee said Chanh had invited her to join his organization, but that she had declined. She said she met with him at his office in the United States several times, and that he had referred to her as "vice foreign minister."
The group gives titles to people as though they served in an actual government.
Foshee's brother, Nguyen Phu Tri, 41, told The Associated Press that Vietnamese officials told him in July 2005 to warn her to break off any ties with the group.
Tri told the court that Chanh's group gave him an air ticket and money to carry four radio transmitters from the U.S. to Cambodia. He said he had been trained to assemble and operate the equipment so he could pass the knowledge on to others.
Lien said she was not a member of the Government of Free Vietnam, but had gone to work for USIM, a charity in Cambodia that helped arrange adoptions of Cambodian children by people in the United States.
She said that she knew Chanh was associated with USIM, but that all she did was help care for children.
The case has attracted attention from U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, a Florida Republican, who raised the issue with the administration of President George W. Bush on Foshee's behalf and is reportedly blocking a key vote in Congress that would normalize trade relations between the former foes.
Bush had been hoping to get the bill approved before the APEC summit. Resolution of the terrorism case might increase his chances, although Congress will only be in session briefly before he departs next week.