Vietnam frees American democracy activist detained for 9 months

Posted on January 30, 2013

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HANOI, Vietnam — Vietnamese authorities on Wednesday released and deported an American pro-democracy activist detained since April, a move that contrasts with the long prison terms given to Vietnamese activists who are members of the same U.S.-based dissident group.
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The release of Nguyen Quoc Quan came after U.S. diplomatic pressure and removes an obvious thorn in relations between the former enemies. Both countries are trying to strengthen their ties in large part because of shared concerns over China’s emerging military and economic might, but American concerns over human rights in one-party, authoritarian Vietnam are complicating this.

Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Quan had “confessed to his crime” and asked for leniency to be reunited with his family. His wife, Huong Mai Ngo, said she doubted this was the case, suggesting that Hanoi was seeking a face-saving way of allowing him to go home.

“I don’t believe it. They say that about everybody,” she said via telephone from Sacramento, Calif. “If my husband was prepared to do that (confess), he could have been released nine months ago.”

Given the diplomatic sensitivities around the case, most observers had expected Quan to be released and quietly deported.

Quan, an American citizen, was arrested at Ho Chi Minh City’s airport in April after arriving on a flight from the United States, where he has lived since fleeing Vietnam by boat as a young man. The 59-year-old is a leading member of Viet Tan, a nonviolent pro-democracy group that Vietnamese authorities have labeled a terrorist organization. He was detained in 2007 in Vietnam for six months, also on charges relating to his pro-democracy activities, before being deported.

Authorities initially accused Quan of terrorism, but he was later charged with subversion against the state, which carries penalties ranging from 12 years in prison to death. Earlier this month, 14 Vietnamese activists associated with Viet Tan were sentenced to up to 13 years in jail.

Ngo said she had yet to speak to her husband, who was on a plane home, but that the U.S. consulate had informed her of his release.

“I can’t believe it,” she said. “I cried over the phone when I was told.”

Asked whether she believed Quan would try to return to Vietnam again, she said: “I can’t stop him, but I hope not.”

The U.S. Embassy, which had publicly called on Hanoi to release Quan, had no immediate public response.

Quan’s supporters didn’t deny that he had come to Vietnam from his home in California to teach non-violent resistance to the Communist government. His lawyer and family members said earlier this month that his trial on charges of subversion was imminent, but then said it had been postponed for unknown reasons.

According to a copy of the indictment obtained by The Associated Press, Quan met with fellow Vietnamese activists in Thailand and Malaysia between 2009 and 2010 and discussed Internet security and nonviolent resistance. The indictment said he traveled to Vietnam under a passport issued under the name of Richard Nguyen in 2011, when he recruited four other members of Viet Tan.

Vietnam is routinely imprisons proponents of free speech and those who seek to undermine the Communist Party’s monopoly on power. Last year, the country arrested and convicted several bloggers, part of a reaction against Internet-fuelled criticism of corruption, its human rights record and handling of the economy.

U.S. officials said last year they were delaying Washington’s participation in an annual meeting on human-rights concerns because of Vietnam’s lack of progress, including Quan’s arrest. Such consultations have been held every year since 2006. Congress members with large Vietnamese-American constituencies have been putting pressure on the Obama administration to get tough with Vietnam.

Associated Press

Elk Grove man vows to fight for freedom in Vietnam

ELK GROVE (AP) — A Vietnamese-American democracy activist who was released after nine months of prison in his native Vietnam is pledging to keep fighting for free speech and democracy in his homeland.
Nguyen Quoc Quan, 60, was reunited with his family Wednesday night in Los Angeles after the Vietnamese government deported him. He was arrested on allegations that he was trying to overthrow the government — a charge he denies.

The Elk Grove activist was released after the U.S. government applied diplomatic pressure on Vietnam.

Nguyen told the Sacramento Bee that he’s happy to be back in Northern California, but he won’t rest until the citizens of Vietnam can speak freely.

“For now, I will fight from here. If I have to go back to Vietnam, I will,” he said Thursday.

Nguyen is a leading member of Viet Tan, a nonviolent pro-democracy group that Vietnamese authorities have labeled a terrorist organization. He was detained in 2007 in Vietnam for six months, also on charges relating to his pro-democracy activities, before being deported.

In 2010, he changed his name to Richard Nguyen and went back to Vietnam in 2011 for six weeks. When he made another trip in April last year, he was arrested as soon as he arrived.

“I knew what I was doing wasn’t against the law, but I also knew I’d be arrested. I planned to become a witness against arbitrary detention,” Nguyen said.

Nguyen said his three hunger strikes in prison and release without trial reflect the power of peaceful protest.

He said his experiences in Vietnam have given him a new appreciation of the United States.

“I love democracy and freedom a lot because I live in America. I didn’t understand much before I came here,” Nguyen said. “Now I want to pay it back. If I can do that, I feel like I am alive.”

Daily Democrat

Elk Grove’s Nguyen Quoc Quan tells of goals, hunger strikes in Vietnamese prison

Nguyen Quoc Quan is happy to taste freedom after nine months in a Vietnamese prison. But the pro-democracy activist from Elk Grove vows he won’t rest until the citizens of communist Vietnam can speak freely.

Associated Press - Nguyen Quoc Quan, second from left, is greeted Wednesday at Los Angeles International Airport by his wife, Ngo Mai Huong, left, and sons Khoa and Tri. The Elk Grove man was jailed in Vietnam and then deported for promoting democracy.

Associated Press – Nguyen Quoc Quan, second from left, is greeted Wednesday at Los Angeles International Airport by his wife, Ngo Mai Huong, left, and sons Khoa and Tri. The Elk Grove man was jailed in Vietnam and then deported for promoting democracy.

“For now, I will fight from here. If I have to go back to Vietnam, I will,” he said Thursday.

Nguyen was reunited with his family Wednesday night in Los Angeles after the Vietnamese government deported him, claiming he had confessed to Article 79, “activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration.”

A champion of nonviolent struggle in the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Nguyen denies he was trying to overthrow the government. He said his three hunger strikes in prison and release without trial reflect the power of peaceful protest.

Five years ago, Nguyen was arrested in Vietnam for trying to distribute 7,000 pro-democracy fliers. He spent six months in prison, was convicted and was deported in 2008.

How did you learn about Gandhi and King?

I was about 12 years old in Vietnam when my stepfather told me about them and what they tried to do. When I came to America from Vietnam in 1990, a lot of countries had turned from dictatorship to democracy based on the beliefs of King and Gandhi. So I read more and thought maybe this would be a peaceful solution for Vietnam.

When my wife and I march in Sacramento on Martin Luther King Day, I feel the joy of people power. I had it in my mind that I had to go back to Vietnam, using them as a model.

Why go back after you already were jailed there?

After my trial I went directly to the judge and asked him when I could come back, and he said in one or two years – just write a letter and he will decide.

So in 2010, I legally changed my name to Richard Nguyen, after my mathematics professor in North Carolina, Richard Chandler.

With my new U.S. passport, I went to Vietnam in 2011 for six weeks, to research how to make people become good citizens in a democratic environment. In April 2012, I returned.

I knew what I was doing wasn’t against the law, but I also knew I’d be arrested. I planned to become a witness against arbitrary detention.

I landed at 11 a.m., was arrested before noon and was asked if I’m Quan Nguyen. I said “yes” and they drove me directly to jail.

What did you do in prison?

They served me the same food as before – a bowl of rice, some watery soup with a few vegetables and a small piece of fish or meat. But I could survive.

I’d do 150 pushups a day. Then I went on a hunger strike and demanded three things: I wanted the books my wife gave the U.S. Consulate to give me. Second, I wanted my documents and some books I’d brought from the U.S. Third, I had to see my lawyers because the investigation was over. I had one official lawyer. I requested two others who also had gone to jail because of their opinions. The law says I’m entitled to a lawyer I trust, but they didn’t let me see anybody.

Did the hunger strikes work?

I wrote a letter to the chief of the jail telling him my legal rights and what I planned to do. In October, I only drank water and on the fourth day they returned the books from the consulate.

Then I started a second hunger strike for 12 days. On the third day they returned my books and papers, but I still didn’t eat.

On the 12th day I filed a legal complaint with the court asking why they didn’t provide me with a lawyer. They had 15 days to answer, and when they didn’t I started a third hunger strike on my birthday. This time I didn’t eat or drink for eight days and almost gave up. I thought I’d wind up in the hospital. Luckily, on the eighth day I finally met my lawyer.

What did you hope to prove?

I planned to be an example, to show the court and tell the judge that I didn’t plan to overthrow anything, but to make the argument that nonviolent struggle is a good way to make things right for the people of every country. They set my trial for Jan. 22, then said they postponed it because the three witnesses against me were on trial in Hanoi. They were among 17 people I was going to train as future leaders.

I wouldn’t confess to subversion. I did sign a letter saying I wanted to be with my family and friends and they let me out Jan. 30. I know the U.S. government put on a lot of pressure and Vietnamese all over the world talked about it. That gave me strength.

Does your release signal a new day for Vietnam?

I hope it’s a sign that something is changing, that unfair trials should be reconsidered. When Vietnamese citizens do the same thing I did, Vietnamese law treats them differently. It is very wrong when one person’s released for the same action (and) someone (else) has to spend 12 or 13 years in jail.

How did you survive in jail?

I thought a lot about my wife. When you get married, you think you have to relinquish your freedom but with my wife, I have freedom to go to jail. She understands me. She knows my dream.

We feel we gain a lot when we choose to lose. I chose to give up freedom to have more freedom. I never think of myself a a hero. I always act as a regular person who wants to do the right thing by my actions.

I love democracy and freedom a lot because I live in America. I didn’t understand much before I came here. Now I want to pay it back. If I can do that, I feel like I am alive.

Political prisoner, now free, comes home from Vietnam

Democracy activist Nguyen Quoc Quan of Garden Grove was detained in Ho Chi Minh City more than nine months ago, accused of trying to overthrow the communist government.

Nguyen Quoc Quan reunites with his wife, Huong Mai Ngo, center, and son Khoa… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)

Nguyen Quoc Quan reunites with his wife, Huong Mai Ngo, center, and son Khoa… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)

The political prisoner looked ashen and bony — weary from the months of being held in his native Vietnam — as he was pulled into the tight embrace of his family.

Nguyen Quoc Quan, a math professor turned democracy activist, had been detained almost as soon as he arrived in Ho Chi Minh City more than nine months ago, accused of attempting to overthrow the communist government.

The government locked the 60-year-old from Garden Grove in a 9-foot-by-9-foot cell, his only company the minder assigned to watch his every move. His sole connection to the outside was a monthly visit from a representative of the U.S. Consulate nearby, and his days of fasting interrupted only by the occasional serving of rice given to him by prison guards.

He ate because he thought of his wife. He wanted to see her again, however unlikely it seemed.

On Wednesday, he did.

As his trial loomed in Vietnam, Nguyen’s situation took a remarkable turn: He was released and returned to the United States. His wife was there waiting for him at Los Angeles International Airport — with three generations of family and a legion of supporters — to welcome him home.

“I dreamt about this every night,” said his wife, Huong Mai Ngo, beaming if also a bit bewildered by the celebratory scene. “The reason he is safe — home — is because of the people. The people lifted us up and believed in his cause every step of the way.”

Nguyen had become among the most visible of the members of Viet Tan, or Vietnam Reform Party, pushing for democracy in their homeland.

Although Viet Tan is regarded as a peaceful organization by the United Nations and other international watchdog groups, in Vietnam it’s deemed a terrorist group. Diem Do, the organization’s chairman, said Nguyen traveled to Vietnam — with a visa — to conduct “nonviolent training.”

A translated copy of his indictment alleged that Nguyen trained other activists in nonviolent resistance and computer skills and recruited others to the cause.

The communist government was confronted by international outrage. Viet Tan organized a worldwide campaign to free him, garnering the support of Human Rights Watch and three California congressional members: Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), Ed Royce (R-Fullerton) and Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove).

The Vietnamese government also faced widespread condemnation after 14 activists were found guilty of subversion and sentenced to up to 13 years in prison. Like Nguyen, the activists were accused of having ties to Viet Tan.

Nguyen was set to go on trial Jan. 22, but it was postponed. Then Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying he had “confessed to his crime” — which his wife dismisses as a lie — and was being expelled from the country.

Do said the government “was caught off guard by the intensity of the reaction from the international community.”

“People who value freedom,” he said, “will not stand silent and they will rise up against it.”

He suspects the Vietnamese government bowed to the pressure to let Nguyen go.

Ngo’s phone rang at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday. It was a contact from the U.S. Consulate: Her husband had boarded a plane. He was coming home.

She immediately alerted family and supporters.

Khoa Nguyen, one of the couple’s two sons, found a ride from school at UC Davis to greet his father. By the time their father cleared customs, three generations of family were waiting, anxious to see him.

“Ever since I was young,” Khoa Nguyen said, “I’ve been hearing stories about the poor of Vietnam, about the troubles and suffering. I’ve been aware of my dad’s cause. We support him all the way. His heart is in his work and we understand this is what drives him.”

Supporters traveled from Anaheim, Santa Ana and even San Diego and San Jose to welcome Nguyen.

They carried American flags as well as the one of the South Vietnam they long for, with three red stripes across a yellow field. Some also brought bright blue flowers, the color adopted by the Viet Tan party.

Finally, Nguyen emerged, carrying a small tote bag. (Most of his belongings and his money had been confiscated by Vietnamese authorities long before.)

Amid the clamor of his family and supporters, joyous to have him back safely, his thoughts drifted back to the prison and to the others locked up for challenging the government. They inspired him. They had a “spirit so full of energy,” he said, “wanting to do something for the country and risking themselves” for it.

Nguyen seemed driven to go back for them, to one day return to Vietnam.

“Whenever I go back,” he said, his eyes opening wide, “you will know.”

L.A. Times

Free From Vietnam

An activist’s release shows pressure from Washington works.

Viet Tan - Nguyen Quoc Quan with his family at Los Angeles International Airport, Jan. 30.

Viet Tan – Nguyen Quoc Quan with his family at Los Angeles International Airport, Jan. 30.

Hanoi rarely delivers good news on human rights, which makes the release this week of Nguyen Quoc Quan all the more notable. Mr. Quan, an American citizen, was freed Wednesday after eight months in detention and deported back to his family home in California. There’s a lesson here for Washington.

Mr. Quan, who moved to the U.S. in the 1980s and became a citizen, was detained at the Ho Chi Minh City airport in April last year. He’s a leader of the U.S.-based Vietnam Reform Party, or Viet Tan, a group that advocates peaceful democratization, which has led the Vietnamese Communist Party regime in Hanoi to label it a “terrorist organization.”

Mr. Quan was initially charged with terrorism when he was caught carrying pamphlets on nonviolent resistance to oppression. He had been held on similar charges in 2007 before being deported back to America in 2008. It’s a testament to his dedication that he traveled to Vietnam again despite the risks.

Hanoi planned to put Mr. Quan on trial on January 22, after it tried and sentenced 14 Vietnamese activists earlier in the month on charges related to their association with Viet Tan. The trial date was postponed with no explanation, and Mr. Quan’s release and deportation this week came as a surprise.

State media reported he signed a confession as a condition of his release, but his wife and Viet Tan leaders say he did not. This Vietnamese claim could be an attempt to save face after a climbdown.

What most likely did make a difference in Mr. Quan’s case was regular attention from Washington. Members of Congress recently sent an open letter to U.S. Ambassador David Shear in Hanoi, asking him to press the authorities for Mr. Quan’s release. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised the issue last year in meetings with Vietnamese officials.

Vietnam is trying to build closer relations with Washington as a counterbalance to Beijing’s growing assertiveness in South China Sea territorial disputes. This made Washington’s complaints about Mr. Quan’s detention hard for Hanoi to ignore.

As a U.S. citizen, Mr. Quan was a high-profile victim. But local activists, such as those who received sentences ranging from probation to 13 years in prison earlier this month, also deserve attention. Cooperation on security issues doesn’t preclude Washington from holding Vietnam’s leaders to account on human rights, and it provides more leverage to do so.

WSJ