Lilburn man who punched Vietnamese minister free on bond

ARLINGTON, Va. - A Vietnamese immigrant facing possible deportation after punching out a top minister of that country's Communist regime at a protest two years ago was ordered free on bond Wednesday by an immigration judge despite prosecutors' objections.

Tuan Phuoc Le, 35, of Lilburn, has been jailed since October, when he was sentenced to nine months in prison for assaulting Nguyen Quoc Huy, vice chairman of the Vietnamese prime minister's office. The assault occurred in June 2005 in Washington, where Huy was part of the first Vietnamese delegation to visit the White House since the end of the Vietnam War.

Le's criminal sentence ended in July, but instead of going free he was transferred to immigration custody.

Le's immigration lawyer, Parastoo Zahedi, said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement backed out of a deal that would have allowed Le to stay in the United States. He has been fighting deportation because he would face persecution in Vietnam, Zahedi said.

Le's supporters in the Vietnamese-American community accuse the United States of buckling to pressure from the Vietnamese government.

At a brief hearing Wednesday in immigration court, government lawyer Mary Ellen Tsekos argued that Le should remain in jail while his immigration case is being reviewed. She said he poses a danger to the community based on his assault of Huy, in addition to a domestic assault conviction against Le in California a decade ago.

But Immigration Judge Paul Schmidt ordered that Le could go free on $30,000 bond, money that was raised by Le's supporters in the Vietnamese community. A hearing to resolve Le's immigration status was set for May.

Several dozen of Le's family, friends and supporters cheered and applauded when they heard a translation of the judge's ruling inside the courtroom. Many had traveled from Atlanta to attend the hearing. Le was not present but could see and hear the proceedings from a video hookup at the Piedmont Regional Jail in Farmville.

Zahedi said the government has missed numerous filing deadlines set by the judge and still has not adequately explained why it changed course and is now pursuing Le's removal.

Tsekos declined comment after Wednesday's hearing. Pat Reilly, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said she could not address why the government changed course on Le's removal, but said that generally, 'when someone commits a crime, when they break the laws of this country, they lose the opportunity' to live in the U.S. as an immigrant.

Anh Thu Lu - a member of the National Congress of Vietnamese Americans, which has advocated on Le's behalf - said she was pleased that Le will be free while he awaits a final resolution to his case.

'We don't endorse aggression at all, but we understand the reason he did what he did,' Lu said. She said Le, the son of a black U.S. Marine and a Vietnamese woman, was persecuted and mistreated when he lived in Vietnam until coming to the United states in 1993 - in part because of his dark skin.