Capital man freed after six months in Vietnamese jail

After six months in a Vietnamese prison, Sacramento-area pro-democracy activist Nguyen Quoc Quan is finally coming home this weekend, U.S. State Department officials said Tuesday.

Nguyen, an engineer from Elk Grove, was convicted of terrorism in Ho Chi Minh City on May 13, six months after being arrested for distributing pro-democracy leaflets. He was sentenced to six months with credit for time served, and ordered deported.

Nguyen, 54, is scheduled to be released May 17. He could be home in Elk Grove with his wife and two teenage sons by Sunday.

“We welcome the news that after six months in detention, American citizen Nguyen Quoc Quan was finally granted a trial,” said State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez.

Nguyen’s wife, Ngo Mai Huong, declared, “I’m on top of the world now! When I see him, I’m going hug him and then slap him and tell him don’t do that to me again.”

Ngo said she was up all night waiting for the verdict, and finally got a call at 4 a.m. from a U.S. consular official in Ho Chi Minh City.

The son of Ho Diep, one of Vietnam’s most famous singers of classic poetry, Nguyen fell in love with Ngo in 1989 after reading a poem she wrote called “Mother.”

Nguyen is a member of Viet Tan, the International Vietnamese Reform Party. Viet Tan has been labeled a terrorist organization by Vietnam.

Nguyen was distributing 7,000 leaflets promoting nonviolent protest in the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi and the movements that helped topple communism in Eastern Europe.

The two-page flier, entitled “Non-Violent Struggle: The Approach To Eradicate Dictatorship, Set The Stage for Democracy,” calls for widespread civil disobedience and urges protestors to “faithfully maintain the discipline of non-violence.”

The Vietnamese Embassy in Washington, D.C., said Nguyen was found guilty of terrorism under Article 84 of the Vietnam Penal Code.

“During the trial, Mr. Quan admitted to having participated in and supported terrorist activities initiated by U.S.-based Viet Tan group,” Nguyen The Cuong, press attache for the Vietnamese Embassy, wrote in an e-mail to The Bee.

“The court ordered Mr. Quan be deported from Vietnam after the completion of the jail term, which also counts his detention since November 2007.”

The State Department’s Vasquez said, “We are not aware of any information to support the charges of ‘terrorism’ against him.”

Michael Orona, a State Department deputy director who oversees human rights, said Nguyen “shouldn’t have been arrested in the first place.”

Orona credited Nguyen’s pending release to a team effort by U.S. diplomatic officials and elected representatives. California’s congressional delegation and the California Legislature, led by Sacramento Assemblyman Dave Jones, lobbied hard for Nguyen’s release.

California Sen. Barbara Boxer spoke with Vietnamese Ambassador Le Cong Phung in Washington Tuesday and was told Nguyen had been convicted of carrying false papers and terrorism, but would be released Saturday.

“Senator Boxer strongly challenged that he had committed any act of terrorism by simply carrying pro-democracy leaflets,” said Natalie Ravitz, Boxer’s communications director. “We’ve asked they reconsider the terrorism charge, but we’re happy he’s going to be home with his family.”

Duy Hoang, a UC Davis graduate working for Viet Tan in Washington, D.C., called Nguyen’s scheduled release “awesome news.”

“But promoting democracy through nonviolent means shouldn’t be a crime,” Huong said. “It means human rights are still lacking in Vietnam, and it takes people such as Dr. Quan to really risk their lives to promote freedom.”

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