An American democracy activist accused of trying to overthrow the Vietnamese government was freed Wednesday and sent home to Southern California to rejoin his family, more than nine months after he was first detained in Saigon.
The unexpected decision comes amid a recent rash of charges against dissidents in Vietnam that have triggered global condemnation and raised concerns about the country’s increased strategic engagement with the United States.
U.S. citizen Nguyen Quoc Quan was arrested last April and faced subversion charges tied to his activism with the banned political party and democracy group Viet Tan. Though the United Nations human rights office and other watchdogs say the banned party is a peaceful organization, Vietnam deems it a terrorist group. The Orange County man had trained other activists in nonviolent resistance and computer skills and recruited people in Vietnam to his cause, according to a translated copy of his indictment.
His release stunned his wife, Huong Mai Ngo, who had fretted only one day earlier that his fate might already be sealed. “I cannot believe it. It’s so wonderful,” she said Wednesday in a telephone interview. When a U.S. consular official in Vietnam called at about 2 a.m. to tell her the news, “I kept crying. I cannot talk, I just cry!”
The official Vietnam News Agency reported that Nguyen was expelled from the country after he pleaded guilty and “begged for clemency so he could return to the U.S. and reunite with his family.” The Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to emails seeking additional comment on the case Wednesday.
Nguyen said the reported confession never happened, according to his wife and Viet Tan chairman Do Hoang Diem, who spoke to him Wednesday. If Nguyen had actually confessed to subversion, he could have been released much earlier, his attorney, Linda Malone, said.
The Orange County man was scheduled to go on trial earlier in January before his case was abruptly postponed. Do believes the case was delayed and Nguyen was ultimately freed because of “intense pressure from the international community” over another recent trial, in which 14 activists were found guilty of subversion and sentenced to up to 13 years in prison. Like Nguyen, the convicts were accused of ties to Viet Tan.
Malone and Do also credited the U.S. government for its efforts. A State Department official said consulate officials visited Nguyen monthly to check on his welfare and pass along messages from his family, and that government officials were also in regular contact with his wife, but said no further information could be provided “due to privacy considerations.”
“There is no question that the media attention, public outrage, and efforts of the State Department were critical in preventing conviction of a U.S. citizen for exercising a clearly protected human right to freedom of speech and thought,” Malone said Wednesday.
Nguyen is expected to arrive in Los Angeles on Wednesday evening. Despite their relief, his attorney and fellow activists cautioned that freeing Nguyen does not mean Vietnam is easing its grip on other dissidents. Earlier this week, state media reported that 22 people from “a reactionary organization” face charges of trying to topple the government.
Nearly 300 people in Vietnam became involved with the Bia Son Council for Public Laws and Affairs and “purportedly produced many documents slandering the administration and distorting the guidelines and policies of the Party and State,” state media reported. Few are aware of the group outside the country.
“Hanoi is basically just afraid of a world outcry,” said Nguyen Ngoc Bich, one of the founders of the Vietnam Human Rights Network. “If the victims are not well known, and nobody speaks out on their behalf, they will ignore it.”
Another human rights attorney and blogger, Le Quoc Quan, was also detained in December and accused of tax evasion, charges derided by activists. Outside analysts say the recent wave of arrests and trials are part of a government crackdown on dissent that has intensified in recent years in Vietnam, as the state faces mounting pressures of its own.
Frustrations over an anemic economy and the “timid” tone Hanoi has taken toward Beijing over territorial disputes in the South China Sea have spilled onto the Internet, where bloggers air their annoyances with those in power, said Michael Buehler, a Southeast Asia expert at the Asia Society.
“The fact that people can talk about these things is what makes this so explosive. That wasn’t the case 10 years ago,” Buehler said.
The government itself has also been wracked by infighting and corruption scandals. Government critics contend the swipes at dissent are actually a sign of state troubles.
“Whenever faced with mounting pressure, they turn to the outside, and create enemies of the state to ensure that nobody threatens their existence,” Do said.
Do and other activists have pressed the U.S. to hitch increased engagement with Vietnam to bettering its human rights record. Late last year, the U.S. delayed human rights talks with Vietnam over concerns about the crackdown, but the former wartime enemies have become increasingly close partners on strategic and security issues.
Building even closer ties or selling lethal arms to Vietnam “should be held out as a carrot for much more serious reform on human rights issues,” said Joshua Kurtlantzick, Southeast Asia fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations.
The State Department did not respond Wednesday to questions about the issue. Its spokeswoman Victoria Nuland has said in the past that the U.S. government is “deeply troubled” by convictions for peaceful speech in Vietnam.