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American released from Vietnam prison speaks out, describes ordeal

Michael Nguyen said he was “essentially kidnapped.”

Pulled off a bus while traveling in Vietnam, he was blindfolded, handcuffed and taken into custody along with three other men.

His arrest, on July 6, 2018, was the start of an ordeal that led to 16-hour interrogations, accusations that he attempted to overthrow the Vietnamese government, a four-hour trial and a 12-year prison sentence.

Then freedom.

Last week, without warning, the 57-year-old Orange County resident was transported from prison to a Saigon airport. Until then, Nguyen said his release “was completely a secret” – even to him.

On Wednesday, Nguyen spoke for the first time about his ordeal. He made his comments during a press conference arranged by Rep. Katie Porter, D-Irvine, who worked with other Congress members and government officials to secure his release.

“It is hard to describe to you, the challenges of two years and four months in prison,” Nguyen said, reading from a prepared statement during a Zoom call from his home in Orange.

During the first two months he wasn’t allowed to communicate with his wife and four daughters. He was allowed to meet with U.S. Consulate officials after 24 days of detention and only under the supervision of his jailers. They were not allowed to talk about his case.

For the first 11 months, he could not access an attorney. A day before his trial, on June 24, 2019, he was provided with a public defender.

“(The attorney) was given a stack of papers more than 12 inches tall, with charges against me, and so-called evidence against me, with no time to possibly review, to question their so-called evidence, to have any sort of due process or justice under the law,” Nguyen said.

“They had written out a statement for me to sign. And the public defender’s main job was to get me to sign a statement of words that were not even my own,” Nguyen added. “I had no opportunity to defend myself.”

Orange County resident Michael Nguyen, second from left, reunited with his wife, Helen, and their four daughters after Vietnamese authorities released him from prison last week. Nguyen, a U.S. citizen, returned to California on Oct. 22 after spending 27 months imprisoned in Vietnam.

While Nguyen was struggling in Vietnam, his family in Orange was working with members of Congress and others to shine a spotlight on his plight. His name was brought up during Congressional town halls and last year his wife, Helen Nguyen, was Porter’s guest at President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address. She later testified before the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia in Washington D.C.

“The constant pressure from the family, from Congress, from the State Department, ensured that Michael’s case was on the minds of Vietnamese leadership when the time came,” Porter said.

“The Vietnamese are calling this a humanitarian gesture,” Porter said. “Having met your four daughters over and over again, Michael,…it’s really true that this is an important humanitarian moment for those four girls to have their dad back with them.”

Earlier in the press conference, Porter said that she hopes Nguyen’s release “is a sign of things to come in the U.S.-Vietnam relationship, but only time will tell.”

She said the Vietnamese government is “afraid of free speech and free thinkers like (Nguyen)” and others held in custody.

Porter added: “Arresting democratic activists is short-sighted. It will not prevent democracy in Vietnam, only delay it.”

Nguyen’s family has denied that he was involved in any political activities in Vietnam.

When asked later if she was referring to Nguyen as a Democratic activist, Porter replied by e-mail: “Michael was in Vietnam to visit older relatives when he was detained without evidence and put on trial without access to independent counsel. His case calls attention to human rights abuses happening in Vietnam, and the repression of democracy and free speech by the Vietnamese Government.”

A Vietnamese refugee who arrived as a child in 1975, Nguyen is an American citizen. He used to own a printing business in Garden Grove, but the shop closed during his absence. While his wife works as a surgical nurse at UCI Medical Center and Kaiser Permanente, he tended to his four daughters, earning him the moniker of “Mr. Mom.”

Nguyen’s arrival home last Thursday, Oct. 22, comes before U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is scheduled to visit Vietnam this week, marking the 25th year of diplomatic relations between the two countries, according to the Reuters news service.

Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Vietnam, said in an interview Wednesday that it’s unclear what motivated Vietnam to release Nguyen. Pressure from U.S. officials played a role, he said. But he noted that in the past, Vietnam officials have released prisoners of conscience when the releases were tied to other political matters.  Recently, the Vietnamese government has released some non-Vietnamese prisoners after they have served some time in prison, he said.

Michael Nguyen is at least the second American to have been released from a Vietnamese prison in the past two years. Former Houston resident William Nguyen, (no relation,) was released after spending 40 days in prison for participating in a political protest. Charges against Michael Nguyen were more serious. The government accused him and others of plotting a protest in Ho Chi Minh – the same one that led to the arrest of William Nguyen – seeking out protesters to demonstrate and occupy government buildings, and planning to use Molotov cocktails and slingshots.

Last year, during his brief trial, he pleaded guilty.

On Wednesday, while describing his inability to defend himself in a Vietnamese court, Nguyen said he was stopped each time he attempted to try to speak.

“They silenced me.”

Michael Nguyen did not directly address the Vietnamese government’s accusations.

“During my long imprisonment, the State Department asked my family not to say things publicly that could compromise my case. I will do the same, not speaking further about my own case so I do not impact other people’s cases.”

Instead, Nguyen spent time thanking various individuals who worked for his release, his wife, Ambassador Daniel Kritenbrink, and the various current and former Congress members who fought for his release and also participated in Wednesday’s Zoom call, including Porter, Lowenthal, Rep. Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana, Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks, and Rep. Harley Rouda, D-Laguna Beach.

“It is overwhelming that so many people worked so hard and for so long to reunite me with my family,” he said.

“I know I was not forgotten and my family was not forsaken.”

Source: Orange County Register

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