Vietnam Frees American Democracy Activists After Protests

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:18 PM EDT

( - After weeks of protests and appeals by U.S. lawmakers, Vietnam's communist authorities Tuesday released and deported an American pro-democracy activist it had accused of terrorism.

It also released two other U.S. citizens, arrested separately and accused of trying to bring a firearm into the country. A fourth American remained in custody.

Truong Leon of Honolulu was taken to the airport at Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), handed to U.S. officials and put onto a flight to Taipei, the official Vietnamese News Agency (VNA) reported.

It said Truong, who was arrested on Nov. 17, was released after showing "repentance," making a written appeal for leniency, and pledging not to take part "in opposing the Vietnamese state."

The report did not mention another American, Nguyen Quoc Quan of Sacramento, Calif., or four others -- a Frenchwoman, a Thai and two Vietnamese -- who were arrested on the same day.

Viet Tan (the Vietnam Reform Party), a California-based organization that campaigns for democracy in Vietnam but is banned in the country, says all six activists are "members or supporters."

Viet Tan spokesman Duy Hoang attributed Truong's release to advocacy by Vietnamese and pressure from the U.S. government and human rights groups.

He said the other five should also be freed.

Earlier, Viet Tan said the arrests at a house in Ho Chi Minh City came after the group had held discussions with other activists "on promoting peaceful democratic change." Police seized thousands of leaflets.

Following their arrest, Viet Tan launched a campaign in the U.S. culminating in a demonstration at the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington on Monday, and a Capitol Hill press conference on Tuesday.

Eleven members of the U.S. Congress also wrote to the Vietnamese government this week, expressing "serious concerns" about the arrests. They noted that Hanoi had tied human rights improvements to the granting by the U.S. of permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) late last year, accession to the World Trade Organization early this year, and its forthcoming term as a non-permanent U.N. Security Council member.


Muddying the waters, six days after the original arrests, Vietnamese authorities detained another two Vietnamese-Americans, Le Van Phan and his wife, Nguyen Thi Thinh, on arrival at the city's airport on a flight from Los Angeles. Police claimed to have found a handgun and 13 bullets in their hold luggage.

Official media reports lumped the couple together with the six original detainees, describing them all as "terrorists." One Dec. 6 report said Le Van Phan had confessed under interrogation to having been given the gun by a Viet Tan member in the U.S.

Viet Tan said in reaction that the two were not members or in any way associated with the organization. It also empathized with the couple, and said any confessions they make while in custody are "completely worthless."

Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) on Monday said she has asked the Transportation Security Administration to provide information about screening procedures at Los Angeles, "particularly any evidence that the suitcase in question was screened by TSA at LAX, and thus did not depart the United States bound for Vietnam containing a firearm and ammunition."

The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi confirmed Wednesday that Le Van Phan and Nguyen Thi Thinh had also been released, and would leave the country later in the day.

According to the VNA report, Truong had been arrested under article 84 of Vietnam's Criminal Code.

That article defines terrorism as acts "infringing upon the life of officials, public employees or citizens [convictions carry sentences ranging from 12-20 years' imprisonment, life imprisonment or the death penalty]; infringing upon physical freedom and/or health of officials, public employees or citizens [5-15 years]; threatening to infringe upon life of officials, public employees or citizens [2-7 years]; [or] intimidating the morale of officials, public employees or citizens [2-7 years]."


Viet Tan disputed the terrorist tag. "Dictatorships everywhere attempt to portray the opposition in the worst terms," Viet Tan spokesman Hoang said.

"The fact that the Hanoi regime has engaged in an all-out smear campaign against Viet Tan only shows their deceit and insecurity."

He challenged the government to publish in state-controlled media the entire, unedited text of the leaflets that were seized when its members were arrested, "and let the Vietnamese people be the final judge."

Viet Tan has posted on its website what it says is a translation of the leaflet. It calls for a "non-violent" struggle to establish democracy in Vietnam, citing examples in the former communist countries of Eastern Europe late last century, as well as more recent developments in Serbia, Ukraine, Georgia and Lebanon.

The leaflet suggests methods of non-violent action, including reducing productivity at work, writing appeals and petitions, and distributing news via the Internet or mobile phone.

"One of our priorities is to promote free exchange of information and therefore spark an open debate among all Vietnamese on the future direction of the country," Hoang said.

The organization would continue to use leaflets, the Internet and nightly "Radio New Horizon" AM broadcasts, accessible inside Vietnam.

Viet Tan says the Vietnamese government has since April jailed numerous people for "propaganda against the socialist state."

In an unrelated case reported by the VNA, a court in south-eastern Vietnam on Tuesday sentenced three people to between two and four year prison terms for "abusing democracy and freedom to infringe on the interests of the state, the legitimate rights and interests of organizations and citizens."

The report said the three had disseminated "anti-state information" in collaboration with others in Vietnam and in exile.

On Tuesday, U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Michael Michalak told reporters in Hanoi he had seen no evidence to support claims of terrorism against the American detainees - including the couple arrested at the airport.

"If they are being detained for peaceful expression of their political views then we will protest vigorously and call for their release," he said.

See also:
House Panel to Probe Vietnamese Rights Concerns (Nov. 06, 2007)
Increases in Vietnam Aid Tied to Human Rights Improvements (Sept. 19, 2007)
Religious Freedom Watchdog: Vietnam Rewarded Too Soon (May 02, 2007)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow