Vietnam releases pro-democracy activist from California

01/31/2013 6:00 AM

01/31/2013 6:53 AM

In a stunning reversal of course Wednesday, the Vietnamese government freed Elk Grove pro-democracy activist Nguyen Quoc Quan after nine months in prison and deported him to California.

He arrived in Los Angeles on Wednesday evening.

Ever since Nguyen's Jan. 22 subversion trial in Vietnam was postponed indefinitely, his wife, Ngo Mai Huong, feared for his life. The Vietnamese government had recently sentenced 13 other pro-democracy activists to prison terms ranging from three to 12 years on similar charges.

Nguyen, 59, was arrested last April at Ho Chi Minh Airport for allegedly plotting the nonviolent overthrow of the Vietnamese government.

On Wednesday, Ngo got a call at her mother's home in Los Angeles from Ted Coley, an official at the U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City.

"The whole night I couldn't sleep, and Mr. Coley told me, 'You better sit down.'

"Then he told me Quan was on an airplane to Taipei, Taiwan,' " said a deliriously excited Ngo. "There was no trial at all."

Two hours later, Nguyen called her from Taipei. "I cried right away, I keep jumping up and down, and he's laughing," she said. "He said, 'I'm very strong, very healthy and people around me tell me I look very young.'

"Then he read a poem for me that said, while in jail he'd think of me, I am his freedom, nobody can fight for freedom if his wife didn't support him," Ngo said.

"He said he's married to freedom and his country. His whole life, he thinks about the people in Vietnam."

Nguyen, a veteran activist who has promoted nonviolent change in the spirit of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi for years, flew into Los Angeles International Airport.

About 100 friends, relatives and supporters were scheduled to meet him, said Diem Do, the San Jose-based chairman of Viet Tan, the International Vietnamese Reform Party, branded a terrorist organization by the government of Vietnam. It has strong support in Sacramento.

Despite the intensified crackdown on bloggers and activists advocating nonviolent change, Nguyen's sudden release could signal a change in the communist nation, Do said.

"I think the Vietnamese government realizes the pro-democracy movement's gaining strength and people are a lot more vocal in demanding political reforms," he said. "On top of that they are facing an economic crisis, and the top two party officials are accusing each other of corruption."

With the release of Nguyen – who had received support from the U.S. Congress, State Department, European Union and international human rights organizations – Do said he's hopeful the momentum is "swinging to our side and we will see meaningful, concrete changes in the not-too-distant future."

The Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security said that under the implementation of the government's "humanitarian policy," Nguyen, 59, was expelled for his participation in the "exile reactionary organization Viet Tan."

Last April 17, Nguyen was arrested at Ho Chi Minh airport before he even cleared customs for "activities aimed at overthrowing the people's administration," the Vietnamese News Service said.

They added that Nguyen "had confessed his offense," asked for leniency and was allowed to return to California to be reunited with his wife and two sons.

"But Quan said he'd never confessed," his wife said.

If he had confessed, he would have been released a long time ago, added his lawyer, Linda Malone, a professor at William and Mary Law School in Virginia.

"It all happened very quickly and secretively," Malone said. "We're extremely relieved," especially since there are approximately 20 Vietnamese awaiting trial on charges of trying to overthrow the government through peaceful advocacy."

Malone added, "The attention you (The Bee) and others brought to this case has without question made a difference. The public outrage and response and the efforts of the State Department are very much responsible for this wonderful outcome."

Nguyen's wife also thanked The Bee, which has covered Nguyen's case since he was first arrested by Vietnamese authorities in 2007 for trying to distribute 7,000 fliers he had written about civil disobedience. "You helped us a lot," she said.

After six months in a Vietnamese prison, her husband was convicted of terrorism in 2008, deported and ordered never to return to the country he had escaped by fishing boat in 1981.

Reunited with his wife and two sons in Elk Grove, Nguyen told The Bee then he was no terrorist, but admitted he had written the two-page flier, "Non-Violent Struggle: The Approach to Eradicate Dictatorship, Set the Stage for Democracy."

The flier calls for widespread civil disobedience and urges protesters to "faithfully maintain the discipline of nonviolence."

On Wednesday, Nguyen's son Khoa Nguyen, a third-year pharmaceutical chemistry student at UC Davis, left school to greet his dad at LAX.

"I'm really stunned, really happy. It came out of nowhere," he said. "I was afraid they were going to keep him for a long time, or execute him. He'll probably just spend a lot of time with my mom and our family."

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