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Man Is Charged in Vietnam Jail Torture

Garden Grove resident, a former trusty in camp near Hanoi after the war, is held. He can't be prosecuted in the U.S.

August 09, 2003|Claire Luna | Times Staff Writer

A Vietnamese refugee living in Garden Grove was charged Friday with brutalizing fellow prisoners, killing two, more than 20 years ago at a Communist "re-education" camp.

Thi Dinh Bui, 61, is accused of starving, beating and torturing prisoners at the Thanh Cam camp near Hanoi.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement began investigating Bui three years ago after camp survivors identified him as one of the enforcers. Although he cannot be criminally prosecuted in the U.S., the charges could lead to his deportation.

He remains in federal custody without bond at a detention center in San Pedro, pending a hearing before an immigration judge.

"Targeting individuals who have terrorized their own people and are now seeking safety and anonymity in the United States is a top priority" for the bureau, said Loraine Brown, an interim special agent in charge in the bureau's Los Angeles office. "We will not allow the United States to become a safe haven for those who have committed crimes against humanity."

Bui cannot be criminally prosecuted because U.S. law enables prosecution for torture outside the country only if committed after November 1994, when Congress passed a law making torture a crime whenever it is committed.

"Deportation is not the ideal penalty, but it is the best that is currently available," said Sandra Coliver, executive director of the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability, a nonprofit organization dedicated to holding accountable human rights abusers who immigrate to the United States.

The bamboo-and-dirt Thanh Cam camp was one of hundreds of re-education facilities the Communist government created to indoctrinate the defeated South Vietnamese. Bui, a former South Vietnamese army captain, was a trusty at the camp after the Vietnam War.

Bui was arrested at his Garden Grove apartment Thursday. He has lived in Orange County since 1994, when he came to the United States with his family.

"He's been keeping a low profile, living in the community, doing odd jobs," bureau spokeswoman Lori Haley said.

When the investigation started, Bui denied the accusations, saying he was acting on the orders of camp guards.

The allegations surfaced in 1995, when Father Le Huu Nguyen, a former prisoner and the chief accuser, chronicled his experience at Thanh Cam from 1976 to 1988 in his memoir.

The unpublished manuscript was circulated on the Internet, and among those who read it was Nguyen Dinh Thang, executive director of Boat People S.O.S., a Washington-based Vietnamese American advocacy group.

Thang filed a complaint against Bui with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in March 2000 after confirming Nguyen's account with other survivors and relatives of those who died at the camp. The complaint included an affidavit from Nguyen accusing Bui of torture and murder related to a May 1, 1979, incident.

Nguyen and four other prisoners escaped that day but guards caught them hours later and beat them with Bui's help, Nguyen wrote. Bui stomped on one man's stomach until he died, Nguyen said.

Bui also is accused of severely restricting food portions, causing one prisoner to starve to death, according to the immigration and customs enforcement bureau.

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