Seven Vietnamese dissidents, including three US citizens, face a one-day trial today in Vietnam, accused of terrorism in a case that is being closely scrutinized by Washington.
They have been held in a Ho Chi Minh City jail for more than one year, charged with planning to broadcast anti-regime radio messages on behalf of a California based anti-communist group which Hanoi considers a terrorist organization.
The case has complicated warming relations between the two countries -- one-time enemies -- shortly before US President George W. Bush travels to Hanoi for an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit next Saturday and Sunday.
It has also proved a stumbling block to moves by the US Congress to fully normalize trade relations between the US and Vietnam, which is set to formally join the WTO before the end of the year.
One of the US citizens under arrest is a prominent Florida Republican, Thuong Nguyen "Cuc" Foshee, 58. Florida's Republican Senator Mel Martinez has threatened to block the trade bill until she is freed.
Also on trial are Vietnamese-born Americans Huynh Bich Lien of California and Le Van Binh of Florida, and the Vietnamese nationals Cao Tri, Tran Dat Phuong, Ho Van Giau and Ho Van Hien.
US State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack on Tuesday said: "What we would ask is that any judicial proceedings proceed in a free and in a fair and transparent manner."
Condoleezza Rice, US Secretary of State -- who will also come to Hanoi -- had raised the issue with Vietnam, McCormack has said.
A guilty verdict on terrorism charges carries a sentence ranging from 12 years in jail to death under Article 84 of Vietnam's criminal code.
But a Vietnamese source close to the case said on Monday that Vietnam may expel the Americans to avoid embarrassment during the APEC summit, the largest international conference it has ever hosted.
A Vietnamese diplomat in charge of North American issues said: "This is a trial held at a very sensitive time in relations between Vietnam and the United States."
"These defendants are considered a very serious threat to national security by the Vietnamese administration ... However, because they are US citizens, they will only receive the minimum sentence," the diplomat said.
"At the same time, the Vietnamese administration still wants to send a warning to anti-government forces inside and outside the country," he added.
Prosecutors charge the dissidents with using the guise of a charity group in neighboring Cambodia, planning to jam the state-run Voice of Vietnam radio station and smuggling transmitters into southern Vietnam.
Vietnam has accused Chanh of plots to bomb its embassies in Bangkok and Manila in 2001, and to attack other state interests, including a plan to bomb a statue of revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh.