Nguyen Quoc Quan, of Sacramento, Calif. was put on a flight to Los Angeles, according to a U.S.-based pro-democracy group of which he is a member, Viet Tan.
“After months of illegal detention with limited access to legal counsel, Dr. Quan’s release comes amidst immense international pressure for his case,” the group said in a statement that accused the communist regime of trying to smear its “peaceful activities.”
Viet Tan says it is committed to achieving democratic change in Vietnam through solely peaceful means; Hanoi labels it a terrorist organization.
The state-run Vietnam News Agency (VNA) in a brief report confirmed that Quan had been “expelled.”
“Quan admitted his crimes, asking for leniency so that he could go back to the United States and be with his family,” said the report, posted online mid-afternoon local time on Wednesday.
Quan had been scheduled to face trial last week, but the case was abruptly postponed.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland welcomed his release.
“We obviously have no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens abroad. As you know, our consulate authorities – officials had visited him monthly, but it is good news that he is now released,” she told a briefing.
Quan, a 59-year-old mathematics researcher, was arrested last April 17 after disembarking from a plane in Ho Chi Minh City.
A VNA report on April 29 said he was being prosecuted “for allegedly organizing terrorist activities to undermine the people’s government of Viet Nam, violating article 84 of the penal code.”
“Initial investigations revealed he had schemes to execute some demonstration and terrorist activities planned by the overseas terrorist organization Viet Tan … during the anniversaries of the liberation of South Viet Nam and May Day,” it added.
The Tuoi Tre newspaper, a Communist Party organ, added that documents on “terrorist training” had been found in Quan’s possession.
Viet Tan noted Wednesday that the “terrorist” charge had later been changed to “subversion,” which the group described as “the catch-all charge to systematically suppress peaceful political activities.”
Article 84 of the penal code covers “terrorism and propaganda against the state,” and conviction can carry sentences of up 20 years’ imprisonment, life imprisonment or even the death penalty.
When the charge against Quan was amended, he was indicted under the code’s article 79, which forbids “carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration” or establishing or joining organizations with the intent to do so.
‘Not an isolated event’
On January 11, Democratic lawmakers Zoe Lofgren (Calif.), Loretta Sanchez (Calif.), Hank Johnson (Ga.) and Gerry Connolly (Va.) wrote to the U.S. ambassador in Hanoi, David Shear, urging him to call publicly for Quan’s release, and saying his arrest was “not an isolated event, but a symptom of the Vietnamese government’s ongoing crackdown on dissent.”
Shear has in the past been accused of “sidelining” human rights concerns. Ahead of a visit to Vietnam by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last July, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) in a letter urged her to remove the ambassador from his post.
Quan has been imprisoned in Vietnam before for his pro-democracy advocacy on behalf of Viet Tan.
He was arrested in 2007 while preparing to distribute leaflets calling for a “non-violent” struggle to establish democracy in Vietnam. The indictment against him said the aim was “to incite people to cause social disturbances, oppose the state, and threaten the state’s security.”
He was sentenced to six months’ in prison and deported in May 2008.
The press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders says Vietnam has the third largest number of people detained for online activism, after China and Iran.
Democracy campaigners say Hanoi tends to get off lightly for rights abuses even as its diplomatic and economic ties with the United States have dramatically improved. Washington awarded permanent normal trade relations in late 2006, paving the way for it to join the World Trade Organization.
During her visit last July, Clinton told reporters she had “raised concerns about human rights” with her hosts, “including the continued detention of activists, lawyers, and bloggers, for the peaceful expression of opinions and ideas.”
But within days of her departure, three activists were jailed for conducting anti-government propaganda, several bloggers were attacked – and some injured – by suspected state security agents, and authorities in a northern province reportedly tried to prevent Christians from holding a rally to protest religious discrimination and anti-Christian propaganda.
Two weeks ago, 14 Catholic and other reform activists were sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to 13 years, after being convicted under article 79.
Viet Tan says its mission is “to overcome dictatorship, build the foundation for a sustainable democracy, and demand justice and human rights for the Vietnamese people through a nonviolent struggle based on civic participation.”