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Political prisoner, now free, comes home from Vietnam

Democracy activist Nguyen Quoc Quan of Garden Grove was detained in Ho Chi Minh City more than nine months ago, accused of trying to overthrow the communist government.

January 31, 2013|By Anh Do, Los Angeles Times
  • Nguyen Quoc Quan reunites with his wife, Huong Mai Ngo, center, and son Khoa Nguyen, right, at Los Angeles International Airport.
Nguyen Quoc Quan reunites with his wife, Huong Mai Ngo, center, and son Khoa… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)

The political prisoner looked ashen and bony — weary from the months of being held in his native Vietnam — as he was pulled into the tight embrace of his family.

Nguyen Quoc Quan, a math professor turned democracy activist, had been detained almost as soon as he arrived in Ho Chi Minh City more than nine months ago, accused of attempting to overthrow the communist government.

The government locked the 60-year-old from Garden Grove in a 9-foot-by-9-foot cell, his only company the minder assigned to watch his every move. His sole connection to the outside was a monthly visit from a representative of the U.S. Consulate nearby, and his days of fasting interrupted only by the occasional serving of rice given to him by prison guards.

He ate because he thought of his wife. He wanted to see her again, however unlikely it seemed.

On Wednesday, he did.

As his trial loomed in Vietnam, Nguyen's situation took a remarkable turn: He was released and returned to the United States. His wife was there waiting for him at Los Angeles International Airport — with three generations of family and a legion of supporters — to welcome him home.

"I dreamt about this every night," said his wife, Huong Mai Ngo, beaming if also a bit bewildered by the celebratory scene. "The reason he is safe — home — is because of the people. The people lifted us up and believed in his cause every step of the way."

Nguyen had become among the most visible of the members of Viet Tan, or Vietnam Reform Party, pushing for democracy in their homeland.

Although Viet Tan is regarded as a peaceful organization by the United Nations and other international watchdog groups, in Vietnam it's deemed a terrorist group. Diem Do, the organization's chairman, said Nguyen traveled to Vietnam — with a visa — to conduct "nonviolent training."

A translated copy of his indictment alleged that Nguyen trained other activists in nonviolent resistance and computer skills and recruited others to the cause.

The communist government was confronted by international outrage. Viet Tan organized a worldwide campaign to free him, garnering the support of Human Rights Watch and three California congressional members: Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), Ed Royce (R-Fullerton) and Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove).

The Vietnamese government also faced widespread condemnation after 14 activists were found guilty of subversion and sentenced to up to 13 years in prison. Like Nguyen, the activists were accused of having ties to Viet Tan.

Nguyen was set to go on trial Jan. 22, but it was postponed. Then Vietnam's Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying he had "confessed to his crime" — which his wife dismisses as a lie — and was being expelled from the country.

Do said the government "was caught off guard by the intensity of the reaction from the international community."

"People who value freedom," he said, "will not stand silent and they will rise up against it."

He suspects the Vietnamese government bowed to the pressure to let Nguyen go.

Ngo's phone rang at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday. It was a contact from the U.S. Consulate: Her husband had boarded a plane. He was coming home.

She immediately alerted family and supporters.

Khoa Nguyen, one of the couple's two sons, found a ride from school at UC Davis to greet his father. By the time their father cleared customs, three generations of family were waiting, anxious to see him.

"Ever since I was young," Khoa Nguyen said, "I've been hearing stories about the poor of Vietnam, about the troubles and suffering. I've been aware of my dad's cause. We support him all the way. His heart is in his work and we understand this is what drives him."

Supporters traveled from Anaheim, Santa Ana and even San Diego and San Jose to welcome Nguyen.

They carried American flags as well as the one of the South Vietnam they long for, with three red stripes across a yellow field. Some also brought bright blue flowers, the color adopted by the Viet Tan party.

Finally, Nguyen emerged, carrying a small tote bag. (Most of his belongings and his money had been confiscated by Vietnamese authorities long before.)

Amid the clamor of his family and supporters, joyous to have him back safely, his thoughts drifted back to the prison and to the others locked up for challenging the government. They inspired him. They had a "spirit so full of energy," he said, "wanting to do something for the country and risking themselves" for it.

Nguyen seemed driven to go back for them, to one day return to Vietnam.

"Whenever I go back," he said, his eyes opening wide, "you will know."

Times staff writers Emily Alpert and Rick Rojas contributed to this report.

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