Demian Bulwa, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, May 19, 2008
(05-18 ) 20:16 PDT Elk Grove — When Northern California activist Quan Quoc Nguyen sneaked into his native Vietnam last Nov. 15, crossing the Cambodian border on the back of a bicycle, he figured he had a 50 percent chance of being arrested.
Two days later, he was picked up and accused of terrorism for using fake identification and for authoring pro-democracy leaflets that described ways to peacefully get rid of the communist government. He faced the prospect of spending years away from his wife and two teenage sons.
But on Sunday, the 54-year-old engineer was back home with his family in Elk Grove (Sacramento County) after six months in jail – and following a whirlwind of a week. Nguyen was convicted of terrorism Tuesday in a Ho Chi Minh City court, then deported on Saturday. About 7:30 p.m. Saturday, he arrived at San Francisco International Airport, where he was met by a throng of cheering supporters, among them Democratic Assemblyman Dave Jones of Sacramento.
“I used the time (in jail) to feel the suffering of the people” in Vietnam, Nguyen said in a telephone interview. “I showed them that I’m ready to share their suffering with them.”
Jones, one of several California politicians who pressured the Vietnamese government to release Nguyen, praised him and said he had brought needed attention to his cause.
“This is a great day for (Nguyen) and his family, but also for the Vietnamese American community and anyone who cares about individual liberty and freedom,” Jones said. Nguyen was sentenced last Tuesday to six months behind bars, a sentence he was four days from completing. He had been arrested with seven others. Two Vietnamese citizens also were convicted; one has three months left to serve.
The state-run Vietnam News Agency reported that Nguyen’s trial showed that he “committed to run, and raise funds for the Viet Tan (Vietnam Reform) terrorist group and entered Vietnam to carry out its terrorist plot.”
Nguyen’s indictment, the agency said, alleged that he planned to “build a terrorism network of Viet Tan in Vietnam and distribute leaflets to incite people to cause social disturbances, oppose the State, and threaten the State’s security.”
Nguyen is a member of the leadership committee of Viet Tan, a peaceful, pro-democracy political party based in San Jose, said party spokesman Duy Hoang of Washington, D.C.
Nguyen said he wrote the text for the leaflets, which were printed and distributed in Vietnam. He said he “wanted to let people know how to promote nonviolent struggle and how powerless people can get the power.”
Nguyen, who as a high school math teacher escaped by boat from Vietnam in 1981, said he went back to visit a sister and old friends. He said he is not allowed to enter the country under his own name. When he was interrogated, he said, he admitted he authored the leaflets.
“I don’t want to deny it,” he said. “I want to pay the price for my beliefs.”
His wife, Huong Mai Ngo, said she didn’t even know her husband was inside Vietnam until she learned of his arrest. He didn’t want to worry her, so he told her he was traveling to Thailand.
Ngo said she could write her husband just one letter a month, and it was censored by the government. A Vietnamese lawyer that she hired quit the case, she said, after his family was threatened.
Nguyen was able to call his wife and speak to her for the first time from the U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City. His first words were, “Don’t cry, OK, don’t cry.”
She didn’t. But Ngo wept at the airport.