Hawaii man jailed in Vietnam vows to continue democracy fight

HONOLULU (AP) – A Hawaii man who spent almost a month in a Vietnam jail after he was found preparing to distribute pro-democracy pamphlets said Wednesday he’s happy to be back in the islands and vowed to campaign for the release of colleagues left behind.

About 30 supporters met Leon Truong at Honolulu International Airport and piled his neck high with flower lei.

Truong, who is called Truong Van Ba in Vietnam, said he thought he might be stuck in prison for months, if not years. He spent 24 days in prison before being released Tuesday.

The activist said he endured hours of interrogation day after day, including weekends. And though he wasn’t physically abused, he said the relentless questioning “terrorized” him mentally and psychologically.

Truong said he had to risk getting thrown into jail because Vietnamese are being denied their basic rights.

“While living in America, I appreciate the freedoms and the rights that we have here,” Truong said through an interpreter in his first interview since returning to the U.S. “I cannot turn away when the people in Vietnam are living absolutely without dignity and freedom that we enjoy here. When you know that it is the right thing to do, you have to take the risk.”

Truong and five colleagues were arrested at a house in Ho Chi Minh City on Nov. 17 when authorities found them preparing to circulate pamphlets on behalf of Viet Tan, a California-based pro-democracy group that Vietnam considers a terrorist organization.

Viet Tan says it promotes nonviolent political change in Vietnam. The U.S. ambassador to Vietnam has said he’s seen no evidence that the group is engaged in terrorism.

Viet Tan said Wednesday the Vietnamese government released one of the others, French journalist Nguyen Thi Thanh Van, after holding her for 25 days. Nguyen is expected to arrive in Paris on Thursday.

Nguyen Quoc Quan, a mathematician from Sacramento, Calif., has yet to be released. Somsak Khunmi, from Ubon, Thailand, and two Vietnamese citizens, Nguyen The Vu and Nguyen The Khiem, also remained in custody.

Truong said he persevered in prison by exercising and meditating. He also thought of his friends and supporters around the world who he knew would fight to get him out.

A strong belief in his work also gave him strength, he said.

Truong, who has lived in Hawaii for 28 years, said his interrogators pushed him to admit that he was a terrorist. He said he finally signed papers his captors drafted for him, but now disavows them.

“They forced me to sign statements. Therefore I deny anything that I said or signed in prison,” Truong said.

He vowed to continue campaigning for democracy in Vietnam.

“I would like everybody to continue putting pressure on the Hanoi regime to help free my friends, colleagues who are working peacefully to democratize Vietnam,” Truong said.

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