U.S. citizen faces trial after being detained in Vietnam for over a month

Nguyen was arrested during a protest in Ho Chi Minh City in June. He has not been seen in public since.

William Nguyen and his sister, Victoria. (Credit: Screenshot, KHOU11)
William Nguyen and his sister, Victoria. (Credit: Screenshot, KHOU11)

HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM — An American citizen detained in Vietnam is set to go on trial on July 20, a decision made just days after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo paid a visit to Hanoi, Vietnam.

Pompeo’s diplomatic mission raised hopes that William Anh Nguyen, 32, who has been detained in the country for more than a month, would be released. Nguyen was arrested on June 10 for “disturbing public order,” according to the State Department.

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While Secretary Pompeo concluded his visit without commenting publicly on this case, Heather Nauert, State Department spokesperson, said in a brief statement Monday that Pompeo discussed the case with Vietnamese leaders.

But the family of Nguyen, an American of Vietnamese descent, worry that may not be enough.

Victoria Nguyen, William’s sister, has spearheaded a social media campaign titled ‘Free Will Nguyen’ in the weeks since her brother’s arrest. She had hoped that Pompeo’s visit would conclude with Nguyen’s release, and she is upset that this was not the case.

“The most important part is that the State Department refused to demand his release,” she told ThinkProgress via Facebook Messenger. “Human rights are blatantly being ignored.”

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Nguyen was arrested during a protest in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s largest city and commercial center last month. Large-scale demonstrations took place nationwide in response to a proposed law on special economic zones that many feared would allow Chinese companies to gain a financial and physical foothold in Vietnam.

Nguyen, who hails from Houston, was on his way to Singapore to attend a graduation ceremony after receiving a Master’s in Public Policy from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He stopped in Vietnam along the way, and attended a protest while there. His graduation is scheduled for this weekend, but Nguyen remains in detention.

Nguyen has not been seen in public since his arrest, with the exception of an appearance on state television on June 18 in what many believe was a forced confession. Local press reported that Nguyen stated, “I understand that my acts violated (the law)…I regret that I caused trouble for people heading to the airport. I blocked traffic and caused trouble to my family and friends.”

He reportedly went on, “I will not join any anti-state activities anymore.”

Nguyen’s mention of the airport refers to a march which took place on the main road leading to Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City. Nguyen had posted pictures of this gathering on Twitter in the hours leading up to his apprehension.

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Citing the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, a bill passed by Congress in late 2015, Victoria said the U.S. government is failing to uphold its commitment to human rights.

“Why has this Accountability Act not been applied to Vietnam, not only on my brother’s behalf, but for the many other [individuals] who have been addressed to the State Department on numerous occasions before?” she asked.

The State Department quoted the act in a July 5, 2018 special briefing by senior administration officials. According to the transcript: “Very importantly, the Global Magnitsky program’s purpose is to disrupt and deter human rights abuse and corruption, promote accountability, and protect and promote and enforce longstanding international norms.”

“Human rights issues in Vietnam have been a continuous issue, and progressively getting worse, yet there has been no immediate action or accountability from the U.S.,” Victoria added.

“Human rights issues in Vietnam have been a continuous issue … yet there has been no immediate action or accountability from the U.S.”

The Vietnamese government has not commented publicly on Nguyen’s condition or whereabouts, though the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam has said that consular officials have visited him. He has not been formally charged at this time, though he is being investigated for “causing public disorder.” Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to request for comment.

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Free Will Nguyen, the grassroots campaign, recently released a nearly 10-minute video compiled from various video sources taken during the protest at which Nguyen was present. In it, the group presents a case that he was attempting calm protesters down, instead of instigating them, as alleged by the police. Viewers can also see the moment he is struck on the head by a man in civilian clothes.

The grassroots effort has attracted attention from a number of prominent American politicians. In the middle of last month, 15 members of Congress sent a letter to Pompeo voicing their  “outrage” that Nguyen was reportedly “brutally attacked and detained by the Ho Chi Minh City police … As Members of Congress representing Mr. Nguyen’s family and the greater Vietnamese-American community, we demand that you immediately investigate this human rights violation and do everything possible to secure Mr. Nguyen’s release from detainment.”

William Nguyen was beaten during the protests on June 10. (Credit: Screenshot, Facebook, Free Will Nguyen)
William Nguyen was beaten during the protests on June 10. (Credit: Screenshot, Facebook, Free Will Nguyen)

On June 28, 14 more representatives, including Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, both of Texas, addressed a letter on Nguyen’s case to Pham Quang Vinh, Vietnam’s ambassador to the United States. “We would like to resolve this urgent matter as expeditiously as possible,” the letter read.

Nicole Thompson, from the Department of State’s Press Office, told ThinkProgress in an email that “The safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas is the highest priority of the State Department. We are deeply concerned by reports that William Nguyen was injured on June 10 in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam at the time he was taken into custody by Vietnamese authorities.”

Thompson said the department has repeatedly engaged with Vietnamese officials on the issue, as have the American ambassador, Daniel Kritenbrink, and consul general to Vietnam, Mary Tarnowka.

“The Vietnamese government permitted consular access to Mr. Nguyen on June 15,” Thompson said. The Bureau of Consular Affairs official added that Nguyen’s most recent consular visit took place on June 29, and that consular officers “remain in close and regular contact with Mr. Nguyen’s family.”   

It is unclear exactly what Nguyen’s trial will entail, as Vietnam’s justice system is notoriously opaque. However, six Vietnamese nationals were sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for the same charge on July 12.

In addition to pushing for further consular access to Nguyen, the State Department said in an email that “our Ambassador and other Department personnel have been in contact with congressional representatives who are monitoring Mr. Nguyen’s case.”

At a higher level, President Donald Trump has not commented on this case, and there appears to be little appetite among members of his administration to publicly discuss the arrest at a time when relations between the U.S. and Vietnam are increasingly friendly. During his recent visit, Secretary Pompeo tweeted: “A strong, prosperous, and independent Vietnam is in the interest of both our countries and our people. We will work with Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh and other senior leaders to promote peace, security, and prosperity across the Indo-Pacific.”

For its part, the State Department’s strategy will remain the same, according to Thompson.

“We will continue to push for continued and regular access by consular officers to Mr. Nguyen, in the interest of ensuring due process and fair treatment.”