US Citizen Faces Terror Charges in Vietnam

By Patrick Goodenough | May 9, 2008 | 8:19 PM EDT

( - An American national is due to go on trial in Vietnam next week on terrorism charges, and the case has some U.S. lawmakers calling for Washington to reconsider the decision to normalize trade relations with Hanoi.

Dr. Nguyen Quoc Quan, of Sacramento, Calif., was arrested last November at a house in Ho Chi Minh City while preparing to distribute pro-democracy flyers, according to Viet Tan, a pro-democracy group that the communist government considers a terrorist organization.

Two other Viet Tan supporters -- a Vietnamese and a Thai -- who were arrested at the same time are also due to stand trial on Tuesday, the group said in a statement.

Viet Tan, which says it is committed to achieving democratic change through peaceful means only, voiced concern that the three accused may have made "so-called confessions" during interrogation.

"The legal system in Vietnam is entirely under the control of the Vietnamese Communist Party and all decisions by the court are pre-determined according to political considerations. Therefore, we reject the legitimacy of the trial."

Another American Viet Tan supporter, Truong Leon of Honolulu, was also arrested in the November swoop in Ho Chi Minh City, but released the following month. At the time the official Vietnamese News Agency said Truong was freed after a written appeal for leniency, and pledging not to take part "in opposing the Vietnamese state."

A spokesman for the group said Thursday that according to Quoc's lawyer, he would be charged with violating article 84 of Vietnam's criminal code, which deals with "terrorism and propaganda against the state."

Other democracy activists had previously been jailed after conviction under the same article, he said.

Convictions under the mildest offense covered by article 84, "intimidating the morale of officials, public employees or citizens," carry jail terms of up to seven years. Anyone found guilty of more serious offenses covered, such as "infringing upon the life of officials, public employees or citizens," can face up to 20 years' imprisonment, life imprisonment or even the death penalty.

Viet Tan has released a translation of the leaflet which it says the activists were planning to distribute when arrested.

Citing peaceful transformations in former Eastern bloc countries, it calls for "non violent" actions to promote democracy in Vietnam, including distributing news and views via the Internet or mobile phone, and writing petitions.

Quoc's wife, Ngo Mai Huong, said in a letter this week that she is anxious to attend the trial "but the regime is determined not to provide me with an entry visa."

She described her husband as "a peaceful democracy activist using non-violent means."

Vietnamese-American democracy campaigners have lobbied hard for the release of the detainees, drawing attention to Washington's awarding of permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) -- formerly known as most-favored nation status -- to Vietnam in late 2006. Vietnam then joined the World Trade Organization in January 2007.

Last March, U.S. Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) and Ileana Ros Lehtinen (R-Fla.) introduced a "sense of Congress" resolution saying that the U.S. government should rescind PNTR status unless Quoc is freed.

Critics of the Hanoi regime in Congress and elsewhere charge that it made improvements to its human rights record in order to win the long-desired trading designation and WTO accession, only to return to more repressive policies once it was awarded.

The House of Representatives last September passed legislation that aims to promote human rights and democracy in Vietnam and links future increases in non-humanitarian aid to human rights improvements.

The Vietnam Human Rights Act is currently before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Previous attempts to pass similar legislation have died in the Senate.

Last week, an independent panel that advises the administration and Congress on religious freedom issues reiterated its concerns about the situation in Vietnam.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said in an annual report the State Department had acted prematurely by removing Vietnam in late 2006 from a list of "countries of particular concern" (CPCs) for egregious religious freedom abuses.

Citing an "overall deterioration of human rights conditions in Vietnam, which includes continued abuses of religious freedom and related human rights," the commission recommended that Vietnam be returned to the list this year. It made a similar recommendation in 2007, although the State Department chose not to do so.

Designation of CPCs takes place under the International Religious Freedom Act, the same legislation that established the commission. It provides for the use of sanctions or other diplomatic tools against foreign governments found to be restricting freedom of religion.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow