A year ago, Michael Phuong Minh Nguyen said goodbye to his wife and four daughters in Orange County, promising to return in plenty of time to savor their summer together and continue his duties as dad, counselor, chauffeur and cheerleader, managing the children’s dance and sports activities.
Now he faces 12 years in a Vietnamese prison.
He had flown to Vietnam to visit aging relatives, thrilled to explore the tropical sights and sounds of his native country. He snapped photos and texted loved ones back in Southern California. On a calm day, July 7, he stepped on a tour bus to coastal Da Nang, only to be ordered off by authorities investigating him on allegations of violating Article 109 of the criminal code, citing his activities and “violent measures” against the communist government.
After spending months without access to legal counsel, and with no formal charges filed against him, Nguyen was called by Vietnamese officials to stand trial Monday. He was sentenced to a dozen years in prison for “attempting to overthrow the state.”
His family in Orange learned of his punishment via social media. Members of Orange County’s large Vietnamese community are furious after seeing images of Nguyen’s haggard face in a court photo and hearing word of his imprisonment via news bulletins from the Little Saigon media.
His supporters have denounced the sentence as an abuse of power, unsupported by any evidence. Some predict a potential chilling effect on Vietnamese Americans looking to return to or visit Vietnam, questioning how safe their travels would be if an ordinary citizen like Nguyen, 55, could be imprisoned for what a number of legal analysts say are false and politically motivated charges.
“How could they possibly do this? How could they arrest a U.S. citizen and not give him due process and never revealing any evidence involving him?” said Lan Quoc Nguyen, an attorney and human rights advocate from Garden Grove. “And what about the United States? It’s shocking that the U.S. hasn’t lifted a finger to help. Vietnam needs the U.S. It has a lot of leverage. Why hasn’t it pushed for answers or for his release?”
Steve Pham, a salesman from Santa Ana, said Michael Nguyen’s case indicates that foreign nationals of Vietnamese descent may be in greater danger of returning home than other travelers.
“When an American, or a white American travels to Vietnam, they are catered to or they are left alone,” said Pham, 38, who has visited Hanoi, Hoi An and Nha Trang with friends. “For the Vietnamese, you always have to be careful what you say, or your cousin or brother or uncle can get pulled into the district police for questioning.”
Pham wonders whether authorities pushed Nguyen to confess to crimes.
At trial, the government accused Nguyen and two other Vietnamese men arrested with him — Tran Long Phi, 21, and Huynh Duc Thanh Binh, 23 — of devising a plan to “incite 100 people to join a protest accompanied by a staged traffic jam, to buy weapons to resist government agencies, and to prepare food and shelters for their long-term fights,” according to an indictment detailed in the government-affiliated Tuoi Tre newspaper.
During the nearly four-hour trial, Nguyen pleaded guilty, according to the Vietnamese government, and will be deported after serving his sentence.
Tran and Huynh were sentenced to eight and 10 years, respectively, in prison. Another, unnamed defendant, who is Huynh’s father, received a one-year sentence for not reporting his son and the other two defendants to the authorities, according to the newspaper’s account.
Nguyen allegedly confessed that he came to Vietnam in 2004 to join talks with an activist, hoping to launch a group whose members would run for public offices in Vietnamese cities. The three defendants headed organizations that used slingshots and Molotov cocktails to attack government buildings and police, aiming to overthrow the government, according to the newspaper. Members of these organizations allegedly shared their ideas and views on Facebook and email accounts.
Those accounts drew skepticism from several analysts and Vietnamese Americans in Southern California.
“My assumption is they don’t have much evidence against Michael, otherwise, they’d be telling us about it in great detail,” said Daniel Duffy, an anthropologist and editor of the Vietnam Literature Project, who has studied the country’s history, politics and culture. “It seems to me that Michael is a kind of sacrificial victim, he’s someone who’s being singled out not because he’s guilty, but as a way of intimidating people who might be working against the government or know people who are.”
Twelve years “is a very heavy punishment,” Duffy said. “I hope that the two governments will think about some kind of compassionate swap, get him out now that the Vietnamese have made their point so forcefully.”
Nguyen’s wife, Helen Bao Hieu Nguyen, who maintains her husband’s innocence, said he has not participated in political causes in either his homeland or adopted country. A surgical nurse juggling two jobs, Helen Nguyen has relied on family and friends to drive her children to and from their activities since her husband’s arrest, and has spent many hours contacting or lobbying legislators to publicize Nguyen’s ordeal. The family also has had to shut down the small printing shop her husband formerly owned and operated.
Her efforts caught the attention of Rep. Katie Porter, a Democrat from Irvine, who invited her to attend President Trump’s State of the Union address in February. Helen Nguyen also won bipartisan support from more than two dozen members of Congress who signed letters on her behalf.
“I’m disappointed with this outcome, and my heart aches for the Nguyen family and for our Orange County community,” Porter said in a statement. “I remain committed to supporting Helen and her daughters at this difficult time.”
Officials from the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam have visited Michael Nguyen 13 times since his arrest, according to Vietnamese media. After attending his trial, U.S. representatives have said they plan to keep advocating for his welfare.
So far the U.S. State Department has not officially commented on the matter.
Le Hang Tran, a friend of Helen Nguyen since they met at a Vietnamese Roman Catholic youth gathering, said she hopes to organize “more help for the family in this crisis.”
“We are raised in this country, we are allowed and encouraged to speak your mind,” Tran said. “Yet in Vietnam, even if we are casually spending time with friends, we can get picked up or harassed or targeted — and where are the public defenders to help us?”
Lan Quoc Nguyen, the attorney and human rights advocate, said that Vietnam only stages “sham trials,” so that Michael Nguyen’s fate in court was preordained. He called the sentencing “an embarrassment for the American government in its inability to guarantee the safety of its citizen.”
“Look at this person — he’s not a priest or a monk who has raised his voice in support or defense of the community,” he said. “He’s not broadcasting his platform on social media or blogging. If he’s an activist, we haven’t heard him and all of a sudden, he’s arrested for different violations. What happened? For everyone who returns to Vietnam, this is a warning.”
Michael Nguyen’s harsh treatment already is making some Vietnamese Americans reconsider their travel plans.
Lana Nguyen, 47, a tutor from Westminster, is leaving for Vietnam this week with her child. She knows that traveling home is perilous. But she must visit her ailing parents.
“I know there’s always a risk,” said Nguyen, who is no relation to Michael Nguyen.
“But for women, the risk is less than for men. That’s why I don’t want my husband to go back. The culture still allows for the fact that what women do not get as much attention as the guys, so we just stay low-profile and hang around the family.”