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.”

Vietnamese police detain Viet Tan members for visiting imprisoned colleagues

Security police in Vietnam detained three members of Viet Tan as they went to visit colleagues who have been held for over four months at a Ministry of Public Security detention center in Saigon.

The three recently detained Viet Tan members are:

  • Ms. Nguyen Thi Xuan Trang, 35-year-old medical doctor and Swiss citizen. Dr. Nguyen is also a member of the Comité Suisse Vietnam (COSUNAM).
  • Mr. Mai Huu Bao, 38-year-old electrical engineer and American citizen. Mr. Mai is a past Executive Board Member of the Union of Vietnamese Student Associations of Southern California and past President of the Phan Boi Chau Youth for Democracy.
  • Mr. Nguyen Tan Anh, 28-year-old manager of a health-care non-profit and Australian citizen. Mr. Nguyen is a past president of the Vietnamese Students Association of New South Wales.

The three traveled to Saigon at the end of March with the goal of visiting Dr. Nguyen Quoc Quan, Mr. Somsak Khunmi, Mr. Nguyen The Vu, and Mr. Nguyen Viet Trung — held since November 17, 2007 at the Ministry of Public Security detention center located at 237 Nguyen Van Cu street, district 1, Saigon — and later with other democracy activists.

On the morning of April 3, Mai Huu Bao, Nguyen Tan Anh and Nguyen Thi Xuan Trang brought medicine and food to the detention center. After entering the facility at 10:00 a.m., they have not had any further communication and have gone missing. It has been over 24 hours since anyone has heard from them.

U.S. to keep pressing Vietnam on jailed activists

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States will use human rights talks with Vietnam in May to press for the release of political prisoners, including a U.S. citizen jailed last year, the top U.S. diplomat for Asia said on Wednesday.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Chris Hill, who visited Hanoi this month, told a U.S. Senate hearing he had raised the jailings of Nguyen Quoc Quan of California and other democracy activists with Vietnamese authorities and would keep on pressing these and other cases.

“We will continue to push vigorously for a greater expansion of the civil and political rights of all Vietnamese citizens and for the release of all political prisoners,” Hill said in a written statement to the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

Hill testified before the Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs a day after the State Department’s annual report on human rights conditions around the world said the situation in Vietnam in 2007 “remained unsatisfactory.”

“The government continued its crackdown on dissent, arresting a number of political activists and disrupting nascent opposition organizations, causing several political dissidents to flee the country,” that report said.

Hill told the subcommittee that economic and social reforms had given Vietnamese more freedom than they had enjoyed since 1975, “but there is no question that serious deficiencies remain in political and civil liberties.”

U.S. officials in May plan to conduct bilateral human rights talks in Hanoi — the third since the countries normalized relations in 1995, 20 years after the end of the Vietnam War — “without pulling any punches at all,” Hill said.

Do Hoang Diem, head of the pro-democracy group Viet Tan, whose activists were arrested last November, told the panel that Communist Vietnam’s nascent democracy movement was growing similar to those of Czechoslovakia and Poland decades earlier.

Describing last year’s arrests the worst crackdown in 20 years, he said: “Scores of democracy leaders have been imprisoned; others put under house arrest or subjected to constant harassment by the police.”

Hundreds attend funeral of Vietnam pro-democracy activist Hoang

HANOI — Hundreds of Vietnamese relatives and supporters on Saturday attended the funeral of veteran pro-democracy activist Hoang Minh Chinh, a politically charged event held under heavy police scrutiny.
Several dissidents in the one-party state were able to attend the ceremony for the Communist Party veteran-turned-activist who spent much of his life in jail or under house arrest for advocating a multi-party system.

“Today is a big event for democratic activists because Professor Chinh is one of our most renowned activists,” said another prominent critic of the government, Pham Hong Son, who has also spent years in prison.

“His passing away is a turning point for our movement,” said Son, wearing a white funereal headband usually reserved for relatives of the dead.

At least 500 people attended the ceremony, including family members, dissidents, writers and poets — but also scores of undercover police, who photographed and videotaped mourners but did not obstruct foreign media.

Pro-democracy activists said police had prevented at least six dissidents from attending the funeral of Chinh, who died this month aged 87.

Buddhist monk Thich Quang Do, deputy head of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), who cannot leave his Ho Chi Minh City pagoda, dispatched monk Thich Khong Tanh to perform the funeral rites.

“Professor Chinh’s family requested that monks from the UBCV conduct the funeral,” said Thanh. “His ashes will be spread in rivers, over mountains and in the ocean so he can return to his homeland.”

The ceremony was interrupted when an activist unfurled a banner for the banned “Victims of Injustice” group. Police removed her from the hall but soon allowed her back in on the family’s request.

U.S. Ambassador Michael Michalak sent a diplomat and said in a statement he was “saddened” to learn of Chinh’s death of prostate cancer on Feb. 7, calling him “a true patriot” and a man of courage and dignity.

“A key leader in Vietnam’s struggle for independence, he continued that struggle throughout his life to have the voices of his fellow citizens heard.”

Chinh was born on Nov. 16, 1920 and as a teenager joined the fight for independence from French colonial rulers, who jailed him for five years.

After Vietnam declared its independence in 1945 he became head of the Democratic Party of Vietnam (DPV), which was then supported by the revolutionary Viet Minh and was finally dissolved in 1986.

Trained in the Soviet Union, Chinh served as dean of the Institute of Marxist-Leninist Philosophy in Hanoi, but he fell out of favor in the 1960s, in part for opposing armed struggle in U.S.-backed South Vietnam.

In 1967 he criticized the Communist Party in a paper, which earned him the first of several prison terms that would add up to at least 12 years.

“Hoang Minh Chinh came to communism with the brave, undaunted heart of a patriotic young man, yearning for the nation’s independence,” said lawyer Tran Lam. “He also abandoned communism with the heart of a patriotic intellectual.”

Chinh had been under house arrest since 2001 but was released briefly in 2005 to seek treatment for cancer in the United States.

While there, he testified before a Congress Committee about Vietnam’s political situation, for which he was attacked in Vietnam’s state press and, upon his return, pelted by a mob with tomatoes and eggs.

On April 8, 2006 he became one of the first signatories of the “8406” pro-democracy manifesto and in June that year relaunched the still-banned DPV.

His daughter Tran Thi Thanh Ha played a message Chinh recorded before he died, in which he said with a weakened voice: “I wish you success in the struggle for freedom and independence and happiness for all Vietnamese people.”

Vietnam Sentences Dissident Writer 

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — A dissident Vietnamese writer who received an international human rights award for courage was sentenced Thursday to nine months in prison for disturbing the public order, a court official said.

Tran Khai Thanh Thuy, 47, a novelist and journalist, was convicted of “causing public disorder” and freed because of her previously served jail time, the court official said, declining to provide details.

Foreign reporters were denied access to the one-day trial at the Hanoi People’s Court.

Thuy was honored last year by New York-based Human Rights Watch, which gave her one of its annual Hellman/Hammett awards, granted to dissident writers for showing “courage in the face of political persecution.”

Authorities previously said Thuy was a member of the 8406 bloc, a pro-democracy group that circulated human rights petitions in Vietnam in 2006. They also accused her of organizing an independent trade union and supporting a dissident human rights commission.

She was originally charged with violating Article 88 of Vietnam’s criminal code, which broadly prohibits distributing information harmful to the state.

It was unclear why the court changed the charge. The court official, who declined to give his name, would not elaborate.

Human Rights Watch said Thuy has written numerous novels and political essays and was an editor of a dissident bulletin, Fatherland, circulated on the Internet.

She was arrested in April 2007 and had been held in a Hanoi jail since then.

On Tuesday, a court in southern Ho Chi Minh City sentenced two dissidents, Truong Quoc Huy and Hang Tan Phat, to six years in prison for allegedly circulating pamphlets in 2005 calling for the ruling Communist Party to be overthrown.

Vietnam’s government, which does not tolerate challenges to its one-party rule, has been cracking down on dissidents.

Pro-reform party coddled in US, branded terrorists in Vietnam

WASHINGTON (AFP) — They rub shoulders with US President George W. Bush and lawmakers in Washington but are shunned as “terrorists” by Vietnam’s communist leadership — members of US-based Viet Tan are stepping up their campaign for democratic reforms in their motherland.

Short for Vietnam Reform party, Viet Tan has built up a vast membership of Western educated Vietnamese spanning the globe and is fuelling an underground dissident network inside Vietnam.

Now, the group is boldly testing the limits of the authorities in Hanoi by secretly sending members to the tightly governed Southeast Asian state, taking the pro-democracy campaign right to the home ground.

Three of its members — two Americans and a French — were caught last month by the Vietnamese authorities together with three other Viet Tan associates — a Thai and two locals — in Ho Chi Minh City as they were preparing to distribute pro-democracy pamphlets.

One of the arrested Americans, a mathematician developing a machine to translate English to Vietnamese, was accused of entering Vietnam on a fake Cambodian passport.

All were branded “terrorists” in the state media and the arrests triggered protests from France and the United States, where lawmakers criticized Vietnam for what they call political and religious repression.

Hanoi has released one of the two Americans and the French citizen Nguyen Thi Thanh Van, a journalist with Radio New Horizon, whose nightly broadcast spreads Viet Tan’s message to counter Vietnam’ state-controlled media.

To highlight its growing influence in Vietnam, Viet Tan’s chairman, Do Hoang Diem, said farmers who participated in land protests that journalist Van featured in her broadcasts came to the jail were she was detained to offer flowers.

“Viet Tan holds that the Vietnamese people must solve the problems of Vietnam,” he told AFP.

“Change, therefore, must come through the power of the people in the way of grassroots, peaceful means,” said Diem, 44, who met Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney at the White House earlier this year to seek action against Hanoi for cracking down on dissent.

Most of the leadership of Viet Tan were just teenagers or younger when the Vietnam war ended. Viet Tan’s members in Vietnam include intellectuals, university students, and workers.

Diem as a 12 year old was among hundreds of thousands of “boat people” who fled to the United States in the late 1970s after the war fearing communist rule.

A masters graduate in management from the University of Houston, Diem quit as a senior health care executive to work full time in Viet Tan, whose name is a contraction of “Viet Nam” and “Canh Tan,” which means wide-ranging reform and modernization.

“To support civil society in Vietnam, Viet Tan focuses on empowering the Vietnamese people through independent associations and a de facto free media,” said Duy Hoang, 36, who also quit as an investment banker to concentrate as Viet Tan central committee member.

When its members were caught last month by Vietnamese authorities preparing pro-democracy leaflets, Viet Tan rallied 300 Vietnamese-Americans to stage protests in front of the Vietnamese embassy in Washington and organized press conferences with lawmakers to highlight their plight.

The lawmakers wrote letters of protest to the Vietnamese leaders and sought intervention by the Bush administration, which swiftly lodged a protest with Hanoi.

Republican lawmaker Ed Royce said he raised the issue with Vietnamese envoy in Washington Le Cong Phung but was told that Hanoi regarded Viet Tan as a “terrorist organization that had long advocated armed activities against the government.”

Viet Tan said that while some of its members carried arms for self defense during its founding days in the 1980s, it has never pursued an armed struggle.

“Our activities for many years now have been promoting democracy by purely peaceful, non-violent means,” Duy Hoang said.

Viet Tan members arrested in Ho Chi Minh City “didn’t come armed with guns and ammo but leaflets and pamphlets touting democracy,” Royce said.

Angered by what it sees as a breach of promise by Hanoi to embrace reforms when it joined the World Trade Organization a year ago, the US House of Representatives has passed binding legislation that will tie US foreign aid to Vietnam to its human rights record.

Viet Tan is now knocking on the doors of the Senate to do the same.

Newly released journalist says thanks for international campaign 

Nguyen Thi Thanh Van, the French journalist and activist who was detained from 17 November to 12 December in Ho Chi Minh City, gave a news conference at Reporters Without Borders headquarters in Paris this morning in which she talked of her fears while held and thanked all those who campaigned for her release.

“Locked in my cell, I was anxious because I could not imagine how I would ever get out of this situation,” she said. “There was never any violence against me, but I was interrogated for one or two hours by policemen every day except Sundays. They tried to unsettle me. It was a form of moral terror.”

Than Van works for Vietnamese exile community media, including radio Chan Troi Moi (New Horizon –, which broadcasts to Vietnam on the medium wave.

“When you are released and discover all that was done on your behalf, it warms the heart,” she said. “I had this concern while in prison that people did not know what was happening to me. At the same time, I was shocked by all the lies and manipulation in the Vietnamese media. It bore no relation to what I was saying during interrogation.”

Her lawyer, Serge Lewisch, said: “It was a happy outcome, but the risk was enormous. She faced the possibility of life imprisonment on these terrorism charges. And the way the authorities were drawing other things into this case was dangerous for her. It is significant that during all this time I was unable to find a Vietnamese lawyer who dared to defend her. It is an indication of the lack of freedom in Vietnam.”

Bui Xuan Quang, the head of the Thanh Van support committee, thanked all those who participated in the campaign including former French government minister Françoise Hostalier, who interceded with both French and Vietnamese governments. “The Vietnamese ambassador to France told Madame Hostalier that distributing leaflets was a very serious crime,” he said.

Do Hoang Diem, the head of the Viet Tan (Reform) party said: “This case confirms that international pressure is fundamental in this kind of case that the Hanoi regime is not ready to abandon its repressive policy towards dissidents.”

Pointing out that a journalist, Father Nguyen Van Ly, and eight cyber-dissidents are still imprisoned in Vietnam, Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard said: “We welcome this happy outcome, but we should not stop here. The repression against journalists and dissidents continues, as shown in the conviction two days ago of four trade unionists for giving information to Radio Free Asia.”