A Vietnamese activist who had been jailed in South Korea for 90 days as a suspected terrorist received a hero’s welcome Wednesday at Los Angeles International Airport from about 150 sympathizers who see him as a freedom fighter.
Chanh Huu Nguyen, 57, who leads the Garden Grove-based Government of Free Vietnam, had been detained in Seoul since April as the government of Vietnam tried to extradite him for allegedly plotting to bomb that country’s embassies in the Philippines and Thailand.
But a South Korean court ordered him released last week and he returned to Orange County’s Little Saigon, where the hard-line anticommunist is regarded by many as a leader in the effort to overthrow the government of his native country.
His supporters viewed Nguyen’s return home as a sign that their cause was gaining ground, despite warming relations between the United States and Vietnam.
Nguyen’s arrival was delayed for three hours as he was questioned and searched by airport and immigration officials. Supporters cheered when he finally cleared customs with his wife, Nancy Bui. They waved U.S., South Korea and former South Vietnam flags and welcome home signs.
“Thanks Buddha, you are home safe!” one supporter screamed. Another yelled a Buddhist prayer in Vietnamese. The crowd gathered around him and his wife, giving them leis and flowers and taking snapshots.
“I feel very happy to be home,” Nguyen told the crowd. “Vietnam are the terrorists. We are doing human rights and freedom.”
When he was arrested, Nguyen was on a 10-day mission for the nonprofit U.S. International Mission to seek donations to build orphanages on Saipan for children forced into sex slavery, said Dennis Catron, president of the organization. Nguyen was arrested at his Green Leaf Plaza Hotel room April 5.
Cuong The Nguyen, spokesman for the Vietnam Embassy in Washington, D.C., said Wednesday that the country still considers Chanh Nguyen a terrorist and would continue to seek his extradition.
“He and his organization should be stopped from conducting terrorist activities against Vietnam,” the embassy spokesman said. “They should be punished for what they’ve done. We feel that Chanh Nguyen is the leader of the group that is comprised of criminals who conduct crimes against Vietnam.”
Nguyen founded the Government of Free Vietnam in 1995 and is the group’s secretary general. It considers itself Vietnam’s government in exile and aims to overthrow the country’s communist government through nonviolent means. But detractors say the organization is insignificant and exists only to benefit Chanh Nguyen financially.
The Vietnamese government has accused Nguyen of being behind attempts to bomb its embassies in Bangkok and Manila.
Group member Van Duc Vo, 46, was arrested at John Wayne Airport in 2001 after he allegedly placed a backpack filled with explosives outside the embassy in Thailand and tossed a bomb over the fence. Vo’s brother, Vinh Nguyen, 52 -- and no relation to Chanh Nguyen -- was arrested in Manila for his alleged role in a similar plot there. In both cases, the detonator malfunctioned and the bombs failed to explode, officials said.
The Philippine government refused to extradite Vinh Nguyen. But a U.S. federal judge ordered Vo extradited to Vietnam. The case is on appeal and supporters hope the Korean court decision will bolster Vo’s case.
The Vietnamese government also alleges that in 1999, Chanh Nguyen directed members to blow up communist statues in Can Tho, a southern Vietnamese city. The Vietnamese government sentenced 37 members of the Garden Grove-based group to as many as 20 years in prison.
Chanh Nguyen’s supporters considered his release a huge gain.
“This is a big win for us,” said Lan Huynh Nguyen, 70, of Ontario, who is not related to Chanh Nguyen. “His work has meaning. He does work that no one else would do.”
Doan Le, 60, of Santa Ana took the day off from her manicurist job to welcome Nguyen home. She spent last week sewing a traditional Vietnamese tunic adorned with the South Vietnamese flag and bamboo, which represents resilience.
“I’m not a member of his group but I see him doing the right thing, going in the right direction so I came out to support him,” Le said. “He’s not a terrorist. He loves his country.”
In 1975, the Vietnamese government seized Le’s home and jailed her husband for 10 years, she said. She has not returned to the country, even for funerals for her mother, two siblings and two uncles, she said.
“When you talk of the Vietnamese communist, I get very hateful,” said Le, who immigrated in 1990. “After 31 years [since the fall of Saigon], I finally see a victory.”