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Camp Enforcer Not a Torturer, Wife Says

O.C. woman stands behind husband who denies brutality at a Vietnam facility.

March 14, 2004|Mai Tran | Times Staff Writer

When Connie Dinh immigrated to the United States and blended into Orange County's growing Vietnamese community, she heard the horror stories about her husband.

She asked him if it was true that he had starved and killed fellow South Vietnamese while a prisoner at a Hanoi reeducation camp, whether he was this traitorous bully whom so many seemed to remember.

He told her they were lies. And she believed him.

Immigration Judge D.D. Sitgraves did not, however, ruling March 5 in Los Angeles that Thi Dinh Bui, a 62-year-old Garden Grove resident and a former captain in the South Vietnamese army, was a human rights abuser who could be deported to Vietnam, a country he fled a decade ago.

"He said he suffered a lot in prison," his wife said. "There wasn't enough to eat. He begged the camp chefs to give him charred rice and roasted crickets. But he didn't torture anyone."

Bui, who has been in custody at a federal detention center in San Pedro since August, could not be reached for comment.

The case has stirred emotions in Little Saigon, where anti-Communist sentiment runs deep. To some, Bui represents the most despised of figures: a prisoner who sold out to his captors in an effort to curry favor. Others see the case against Bui as coming too late, and believe he should be allowed to live out his life in his adopted country.

"It happened 30 years ago," said Hung Nguyen, 52, an engineer from Westminster. "It wouldn't do any good to separate him from his family now."

Bui was arrested at his Garden Grove home in August on suspicion of violating the Immigration and Nationality Act by ordering, inciting and participating in the persecution of others, said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

At the conclusion of a two-week trial, Judge Sitgraves found there was reason to believe the refugees who testified that Bui was a camp enforcer who killed at least two inmates. A deportation hearing is scheduled in April.

"He's a persecutor of others, and the laws of the United States do not permit the country to be a safe haven for people who commit atrocities such as this," said Bill Odencrantz, director of field legal services for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Custom Enforcement division, which prosecuted the case.

Despite the judge's ruling, Bui insists that the accusations against him are false.

"Mr. Bui realizes that because of the position he held at the Thanh Cam camp, some of his fellow inmates resented him and some still hold anger toward him," said Bui's attorney, Louis Piscopo of Anaheim. "Mr. Bui and his family believe that personal animosity, the need for some individuals to seek publicity for themselves and political reasons caused him to be falsely accused of the atrocious acts."

Bui and his wife met while they were students at a sewing school in Saigon. They married three years later and had nine children.

After Saigon fell in 1975, Bui was among the thousands of Vietnamese who were forced into so-called reeducation camps. He spent six years incarcerated, most of the time at Thanh Cam outside Hanoi. There, Bui was promoted to trat tu vien, or disciplinary enforcer, for the camp guards from 1978 to 1981. He supervised about 400 prisoners and earned a reputation for being strict and cruel.

Andrew Le Huu Nguyen, a Catholic priest who was imprisoned in 1978 for anti-Communist sermons, was among five prisoners who tried to escape in May 1979.

He testified during the recently concluded trial that Bui captured the escapees and attacked them with a vengeance. Nguyen testified that he was kicked in the chest and stomach until he passed out. Bui dragged him by the legs up a flight of stairs -- his head banging on each step -- and then shackled him to a wall, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors said another inmate, Tiep Van Dang, was beaten to death by Bui while another, Van Thanh Lam, was attacked by the camp enforcer and then left to die from starvation.

One inmate, Father Nghi Van Tran, was hit in the face until his lips split and was shackled for several days, prosecutors said.

Bui and all other reeducation camp inmates were released in 1981. Bui was reunited with his family. After being sponsored by an aunt who lived in Westminster, Bui brought his wife and eight of his nine children to the United States.

Within months, Vietnamese radio bubbled with talk that Bui was a human rights abuser. Accounts of his role as a camp enforcer appeared in Little Saigon-based newspapers.

Connie Dinh said it was the first time she had heard the charges.

"I was so scared," Dinh said. "I thought it was revenge. Maybe there was an argument in the prison. I thought it was something minor."

When she confronted her husband, he denied the allegations.

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