Federal immigration officials are investigating allegations that an Orange County Vietnamese refugee committed atrocities against fellow prisoners at a Communist "reeducation" camp more than two decades ago, including beating an inmate to death.
The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service launched the investigation last year after several survivors of the Thanh Cam prison camp near Hanoi identified Thi Dinh Bui of Garden Grove as one of the camp's brutal enforcers.
Bui, 60, was a trusty at the camp after the end of the Vietnam War, and has lived quietly in Orange County's Vietnamese community since immigrating in 1990.
Bui, a former South Vietnamese Army captain, could not be reached for comment Monday, but a woman who identified herself as his wife denied Bui had committed any atrocities.
"If he's brutal like that, how could I have lived with him for these many years?" said Dinh Ngoc. He is a "good person. . . . He's been a soldier for years, and he's not a communist. He's not a killer . . . and some day we will be able to clear this."
Some Vietnamese community leaders in Orange County, home to 135,000 Vietnamese Americans, on Monday cautioned against a rush to judgment.
"The Vietnamese community is furious," said community activist Cong Tran, "but the reality is there are two sides to the story, and people don't know what the real truth is."
But Father Le Huu Nguyen, a former prisoner and Bui's chief accuser, said he saw Bui kill prisoner Tiep Van Dang, a former major in the South Vietnamese Air Force, after an escape attempt.
"This man was used by the Communists, but he is innately evil," Nguyen said Monday. "I saw what I saw. The truth is still the truth."
If an immigration judge finds Bui guilty, he may lose his refugee status and be deported, INS officials said Monday. However, his fate is unclear because Vietnam does not accept expatriates convicted of crimes abroad. "We are actively looking into this case," said INS associate general counsel Sarah Kendall.
She declined to provide additional details, citing the agency's policy of not commenting on ongoing investigations. She was unaware of any similar cases involving Vietnamese refugees, but said the INS routinely investigates all allegations.
The accusations against Bui surfaced in 1995, when Nguyen, an ordained Catholic priest who lives in New Zealand and often visits the U.S., detailed his experiences at Thanh Cam between 1976 and 1988 in his memoir.
The bamboo and dirt camp was one among hundreds of reeducation camps set up by the the Communist government to indoctrinate the defeated South Vietnamese people.
Nguyen and Bui were both inmates, but as a trusty, Bui was given special privileges by the guards in exchange for keeping order among the prisoners.
"I wanted to write stories about the prison," Nguyen said when reached by telephone Monday in Washington, D.C. "Many people have known about this incident, but people don't know the reasons or consequences. Bui went to prison with us, and the Communists used him to be a trusty, but he abused his powers. He tortured and killed people."
Advocacy Group Files Complaint
Nguyen's unpublished manuscript circulated on the Internet among Vietnamese refugees around the world.
One of those who saw the manuscript was Nguyen Dinh Thang, executive director of Boat People S.O.S., a Washington, D.C.-based Vietnamese American advocacy group.
Thang said he filed a complaint against Bui with the INS in March 2000 after confirming the priest's account with other Thanh Cam survivors and relatives of prisoners who died in the camp.
Thang's complaint to the INS included an affidavit from Nguyen that accused Bui of torture and murder.
On May 1, 1979, Nguyen and four other prisoners tried to escape, but were caught by guards the next day. All five were beaten severely by the guards and Bui, the priest's affidavit stated.
"I was kicked and beaten on until I was unconscious," Nguyen said Monday. "Then Bui took water and splashed it on my face, and he beat me and dragged me to my room. I saw him stomp on Maj. Tiep Van Dang's stomach until he was dead. He did the same thing to me, but I survived."
After 1988, the priest was transferred to another camp. He stayed there for a year and was released. In January 1989, he fled to Cambodia and Thailand and eventually to New Zealand, he said.
"I thought I would never write about it, but in 1995, when I heard Bui was in Orange County in California, I had to write," the priest said.
Another former Thanh Cam prisoner said he saw other incidents. .
"I saw him slap or kick prisoners in the stomach," said Son Le, 55, who spent four years at the Thanh Cam camp. "They closed the gates and locked us up."
Le, now living in Fullerton, said Bui usually punished people who hid food in their clothing after a day working in the fields.
Times staff writer Seema Mehta contributed to this story.