For months they have rallied in the streets of Little Saigon and outside the South Korean consulate in Los Angeles, pleading for the release of an anticommunist leader they insist has wrongly been branded a terrorist.
Chanh Huu Nguyen, 57, a one-time construction engineer who spearheads the Garden Grove-based Government of Free Vietnam organization, has been detained in Seoul since April.
He was being held at the request of the Vietnamese government, which wants him extradited so that he can be tried for terrorist acts, including failed plots to bomb Vietnamese embassies in the Philippines and Thailand.
But where the communist country sees a terrorist, hundreds of supporters in the United States’ largest Vietnamese enclave see a freedom fighter.
They have held vigils, hunger strikes and rallies. They have sent signed petitions asking the United States, South Korea and the United Nations to intervene.
“We’re trying to raise our voice and prove that he’s reflecting people’s dreams for democracy. He’s not a terrorist,” said Ngu Dai Nguyen, 53, a Salt Lake City resident -- and no relation to the activist -- who flew in last weekend to join a protest in Orange County’s Little Saigon. “It’s easy for the government to call someone a terrorist. Anybody who is against the government is labeled a terrorist.”
This week, Nguyen’s wife, Nancy Bui, 51, two of the couple’s four sons and several supporters flew to Seoul to attend a hearing today and counter the Vietnam government’s claim that Nguyen is a terrorist and should be extradited. It was unclear whether a determination on the extradition would be made.
It is not the first time a member of the group has ended up in jail, nor the first time that anticommunist forces have come together in Little Saigon to support outspoken critics of the Vietnamese government.
But Vietnamese officials said that Nguyen, and others before him, are criminals. His Garden Grove group is “a ring of criminals who conduct terrorism activities against Vietnam,” said Cuong The Nguyen, spokesman for the Vietnam Embassy in Washington and no relation to the activist.
Chanh Huu Nguyen has been on the Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security’s wanted list for acts of terrorism and was named in an international warrant from Interpol on charges of weapons smuggling and terrorism, the embassy spokesman said.
But the activist’s family and supporters take strong exception.
“This seems to be a political case more than anything else,” said his son, Ha Nguyen, 24, of Garden Grove. “Of course my father is not a terrorist. He’s just fighting against the Communist Party for democracy and freedom for Vietnamese people. The only people who are saying that he’s a terrorist is the party.”
Chanh Huu Nguyen was in Seoul for the nonprofit U.S. International Mission to seek donations from businessmen to build orphanages on Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands for children forced into sex slavery, said Dennis Catron, president of the organization dedicated to fighting human trafficking. Ha Nguyen said that police swarmed his father’s room at the Green Leaf Plaza Hotel and arrested him April 5.
In previous interviews with The Times, Chanh Huu Nguyen denied being a terrorist. “Vietnam is taking advantage of the terrorist situation by claiming that I’m a terrorist,” he said.
He founded the Government of Free Vietnam in 1995 and considers it Vietnam’s government in exile. It aims to overthrow Vietnam’s communist government through nonviolent means.
Some in Little Saigon dismiss the group as insignificant and suggest it is a vehicle for Chanh Huu Nguyen’s personal ambitions. He says that the group has 200,000 members worldwide and a $1-million budget; other reports say there are but 5,000 members.
Regardless, members have made headlines.
In 2001, Van Duc Vo, 46, was arrested at John Wayne Airport after he allegedly tried to bomb the Vietnamese Embassy in Bangkok. He allegedly placed a backpack with explosives outside the embassy and tossed a brown box over the fence.
The box contained 11 pounds of diesel fuel and ammonium nitrate, the same ingredients used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, officials said.