Bruce Newman
San Jose: Activist Ly Tong sentenced to six months in jail

Ly Tong, who galvanized much of San Jose's Vietnamese community with his private against communism -- a war that in this case went very public -- was sentenced Friday (6-22-2012) to six months in jail for an attack on a singer from Vietnam.

But because of the time he has already served, Tong will be spending 54 more days in the Santa Clara County jail.

Both prosecutors and Probation Department recommended Tong receive minimal jail time, and supporters urged he be released immediately.
Judge Andrea Y. Bryan wasn't having it. She said she found the recommendation from the probation department "overly lenient," and instead gave Tong six months jail time. He also received three years probation.

Tong last month was convicted of two misdemeanors -- simple assault and resisting arrest -- and two felonies, including using tear gas and second-degree burglary with the intent to commit a felony, for spraying a singer from Vietnam with some form of tear gas-like irritant.

Tong faced a maximum of three years and eight months in jail.

It was the culmination of a trial that featured cross-dressing and even fish dressing — as experts were called upon to testify whether fish sauce and perfume constituted a dangerous weapon.

An hour before the scheduled sentencing, a brigade of yellow-shirted supporters gathered outside the Hall of Justice, waiting to learn the fate of their hero.

The yellow shirts bore the inscription "Ly Tong, freedom fighter."

"Only people who suffered under Communism will understand what he did, and why he did it," said Mai Nguyen of San Jose. "We will never forget our history. The younger generation that was born here, they don't understand. He's a hero. Nobody else will do what he did."

Outside the courtroom, supporters were told only some of them would get in. They were instructed to take off their yellow T-shirts.

Among the more than 100 supporters was a delegation of 36 from the Vietnamese American Federation of Southern California, and others from as far away as Florida.

By Thursday, petitions bearing a total of 6,778 signatures of support had been sent to the judge. Councilman Kansen Chu wrote a letter to Tong, describing him as "a kind person of good character with a passion to serve. County Supervisor Dave Cortese, who is planning a run for mayor of San Jose, sent a letter to Judge Bryan suggesting "additional incarceration is unnecessary." And, as usual, Tong's retinue of elderly supporters from the Vietnamese community -- many arrayed in vintage fatigues -- showed up outside the courthouse before sentencing.

Tong had been held in the county jail for a month since his conviction, and had been officially credited with double that as "good time."
At his trial, the former South Vietnamese fighter pilot -- and since his resettlement in San Jose, self-styled "freedom fighter" -- favored military-style coveralls, except during closing arguments, when he showed up in a print dress, high heels and heavy makeup. That was the same get-up in which Tong, an ardent anti-communist, had confronted singer Dam Vinh Hung, whose politics he disliked, at the Santa Clara Convention Center two years earlier.

The cross-dressing stunt prompted his own lawyer to question outside the presence of the jury whether Tong was competent to participate in his defense. But closing arguments proceeded even as wide-eyed jurors took the measure of the man in the brown wig and blazing red jacket.
In the end, jurors couldn't agree on whether Tong's weapon of choice was pepper spray or his own fragrant mixture of perfume and fish sauce. They acquitted him of felony assault, while convicting him of simple assault and resisting arrest -- both misdemeanors -- and more serious felony charges of using tear gas and second-degree burglary with the intent to commit a felony.
Staff writer Tracey Kaplan contributed to this story. Contact Bruce Newman at 408-920-5004;