After more than six months in a Vietnamese prison, pro-democracy activist Nguyen Quoc Quan of Elk Grove is scheduled to go on trial for plotting to overthrow the communist government.
“The investigation is complete, he is going to trial very soon,” said his anxious wife, Huong Mai Ngo. She is able to communicate with her husband only through a U.S. consular official who visits him monthly behind bars.
Nguyen, 59, was arrested April 17 at the airport in Ho Chi Minh City under his American name, Richard Nguyen. He is accused of plotting “demonstrations and terrorist activities” during celebrations for the anniversary of the Communist victory on April 30, 1975, according to the Vietnam News Agency.
He was ordered detained for four months before the charges were switched to plotting to overthrow the government.
This is the second time in five years Nguyen’s been imprisoned in Vietnam on terrorism charges by the government.
His wife said Nguyen told her he wants to honor the unknown martyrs who gave their lives for a free, democratic Vietnam. “He’s told me many times he’s lived long enough and wants to sacrifice himself to change Vietnam,” Huong said. “I get mad at him.”
Nguyen’s case has drawn attention from human rights groups who have accused Vietnam of increasingly cracking down on dissent and freedom of speech. U.S. Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Gold River, has championed Nguyen’s case, asking Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam David Shear to secure his release.
Lungren sponsored a unanimous congressional resolution calling on Vietnam to “respect human rights and cease abusing vague national security laws.”
“Here’s a man who left that country, reached his freedom, and has the courage to go back as a symbol of the hopes and dreams of the Vietnamese people to express themselves freely,” Lungren said.
Nguyen is “a hero,” Lungren said, “but the only way I believe he will remain alive is if we can continue to put the spotlight on him from a whole choir of voices.”
A devotee of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., Nguyen spent six months in Vietnamese prisons in 2007 and 2008 for trying to distribute 7,000 fliers he had written about civil disobedience.
After his release from prison in 2008, Nguyen told The Bee that he isn’t a terrorist.
He acknowledged he wrote “Non-Violent Struggle: The Approach To Eradicate Dictatorship, Set The Stage for Democracy,” a two-page flier calling for widespread civil disobedience and urging protesters to “faithfully maintain the discipline of non-violence.”
A high school math teacher in Vietnam, Nguyen fled in a fishing boat in 1981. He landed in Raleigh, N.C., earned a doctorate in engineering in 1986, then moved to California. After drinking in American freedom and democracy, “I thought maybe this is a solution for the Vietnamese people. So I dedicated my life to Viet Tan,” he said in the 2008 interview.
Viet Tan, the International Vietnamese Reform Party, has been branded as a terrorist organization by the government of Vietnam.
Viet Tan, mentioned in the current complaint against Nguyen, has strong support in Sacramento, home to more than 30,000 Vietnamese immigrants.
Vietnamese talk-show host Nancy Tran of Sacramento’s TNT radio said Nguyen’s arrest reflects “the state of mind of people who are so paranoid. … They have to hold him because if they appear to be too easy on dissidents who voice the truth, then everybody will rise up against them.”
Plotting to overthrow the government is a serious charge, Tran said. Two Vietnamese musicians, “peaceful patriots who wrote beautiful songs about how we are in danger of Chinese aggression,” were sentenced recently to four and six years for the offense, Tran said.
The first question everyone asks is why did Nguyen, a father of two, go back after having been imprisoned there before, Tran said. “But when you’re dealing with a dictatorship, you have to fight for the right to speak peacefully and express your concerns.”
“He has no weapons except his heart,” Tran said. “We are here to help and not hurt the country. Once we blossomed in the United States of America, we’ve learned it’s the right of every human being on earth to be free.”
The Vietnamese embassy in Washington, D.C., referred questions to the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry in Hanoi. There has been no response, but Nguyen has “admitted his involvement in the criminal activities,” according to VNS.
Huong, his wife, denies her husband’s confession. At his request, she has hired two defense lawyers who themselves spent time in Vietnam prisons. “Both lawyers are freedom fighters, and of course the government doesn’t like it,” Huong said.
Nguyen’s sons Khoa, 20, a UC Davis chemistry major, and Tri, 19, who grew up learning about nonviolent protest from their dad, “call me every day and ask when he will be home,” Huong said.
Since Nguyen isn’t allowed to send or receive letters, all correspondence goes through Ted Coley of the U.S. Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City. He visits Nguyen once a month and brings him books Huong has sent.
In May, Coley reported, “Mr. Nguyen was in good spirits and asked us tell his family to be strong and for his children to study hard. He asked his wife to be optimistic, persistent, not worry and rest assured that everything will work out in the end.”
When he’s released, he has promised “to take walks with his mother-in-law and tell the family funny stories. … He loves his family and asks them to take care of one another,” Huong said.