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Dismissal of Agent Orange Suit Draws Fire

A Vietnamese group expressed anger Friday over a U.S. judge's dismissal of a historic class-action lawsuit claiming American chemical companies had committed war crimes by making the defoliant Agent Orange during the Vietnam War (search).

U.S. District Judge Jack B. Weinstein threw out the case in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Thursday, saying he did not agree that Agent Orange (search) and similar herbicides should be considered poisons banned under international rules of war.

U.S. aircraft sprayed more than 21 million gallons of defoliant, mostly Agent Orange, on Vietnam from 1962-71 to destroy crops and remove communist forces's cover. It has been blamed for a vast range of health problems.

"We are disappointed ... Weinstein has turned a blind eye before the obvious truth. It's a shame for him to put out that decision. We just want justice, nothing more," said Nguyen Trong Nhan, vice president of the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange (search). He said the group was thinking of filing an appeal.

The lawsuit was the first-ever attempt by Vietnamese plaintiffs to seek compensation for the effects of Agent Orange, which contains the toxic chemical dioxin and has been linked to cancer, diabetes and birth defects among Vietnamese soldiers and civilians and U.S. veterans.

Weinstein also found that the plaintiffs could not prove that Agent Orange had caused their illnesses, largely due to a lack of research.

Lawyers for chemical manufacturers Monsanto, Dow Chemical and a dozen other companies had argued the firms should not be punished for following the orders of the nation's president and that international law exempts corporations, as opposed to individuals, from liability for alleged war crimes.

"We've said all along that any issues regarding wartime activities should be resolved by the U.S. and Vietnamese governments," said Dow Chemical spokesman Scot Wheeler. "We believe that defoliants saved lives by protecting allied forces from enemy ambush and did not create adverse health effects."

The Justice Department had said a ruling against the firms could cripple the president's power to direct the military.

Many U.S. veterans and Vietnamese have long blamed Agent Orange for cancer, diabetes, spina bifida and other problems. The U.S. government claims there is no direct evidence linking dioxin to the ailments. However, about 10,000 U.S. veterans receive disability benefits related to Agent Orange exposure.

Vietnam's government has never formally asked for compensation for Agent Orange victims.

Former North Vietnamese soldier Nguyen Van Quy, 50, a plaintiff in the civil case, said he was disappointed in the judge's "unjust decision" but does not plan to give up.

Quy — currently being treated for liver and stomach cancer — also blames Agent Orange for birth defects in his two children. His developmentally disabled son, 18, has spinal problems. His daughter, 14, is deaf, mute and developmentally disabled.

"I'll fight, not just for myself, but for millions of Vietnamese victims. Those who produced these toxic chemicals must take responsibility for their action," Quy said.