A MAN who could face the death penalty if he returns to Vietnam looks set to be forced back by the Hong Kong Government despite guarantees to the contrary by the Secretary for Security, Peter Lai Hing-ling. Le Tu Phuong was informed last Thursday that he and his family had been cleared for return to Vietnam under the Government's forced repatriation programme. He is said to have been distraught at the news. Counsel for Mr Le, Michael Darwyne, claims past legal challenges to Mr Le's detention could be the basis of a move by Vietnam to prosecute his client for slander of the state, a crime that carries the death penalty. Efforts to gain assurances from Hanoi about Mr Le's prospects if he returned have resulted in a statement from the Foreign Affairs Ministry that re-affirmed Vietnam's policy of not prosecuting for illegal departure but prosecuting for offences undertaken prior to departure. No reply was given in respect of offences committed after departure or on Mr Le's case. Mr Le was represented by Mr Darwyne in a judicial review in which it was claimed in open court that he was mistreated, detained and deprived of the chance to make a living in Vietnam. Mr Darwyne said he was informed by the Vietnamese Consul-General in Hong Kong, Le Xuan Lieu, that his client faced prosecution for slander on the basis of the court statements. Yesterday Mr Darwyne said he was deeply concerned to learn that Mr Le had been cleared for return to Vietnam from High Island detention centre. 'I understand that when he was told, he was in tears, he was distraught,' Mr Darwyne said. He said it was unacceptable that Mr Le should be put through such torment without the Government securing assurances from Vietnam that he would not face prosecution for slander. Earlier, on a visit to Hanoi, the Secretary for Security said Hong Kong would not deport anyone who could face the death penalty. A Security Branch spokesman said yesterday it was the Government's policy not to comment on individual cases. One senior Vietnamese official has indicated that there are many criminals among Hong Kong's boat people camps who face jail on their return to Vietnam. Bui Dinh Dinh, deputy head of the consular department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Vietnam had to take action against people who committed serious crimes before fleeing. At least 50 Vietnamese in High Island detention centre have volunteered for repatriation since an intensive counselling campaign, coupled with a US$150 (HK$1,158) incentive offer, began on Thursday. About 950 of the 1,500 people in the camp have been verified by Vietnam for return.