A group of U.S. congressmen called the ambassador to Vietnam on Friday to express serious concern over the arrest of an American citizen detained by Vietnamese authorities for attending a weekend protest in Ho Chi Minh City that turned violent.
Congressmen Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.), Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.), and Lou Correa (D-Calif.) spoke with Ambassador Dan Kritenbrink and called on the Vietnamese government to immediately release William (Will) Ahn Nguyen.
The 32-year-old graduate student from Houston, Texas, was beaten and arrested for attending what started out as a peaceful demonstration on June 9. He is visiting Vietnam a month before he is scheduled to graduate from a master’s degree program at a university in Singapore.
Nguyen had tweeted about clashes between protesters and police over government plans to grant long-term leases to foreign companies operating in special economic zones (SEZs), stirring public fears that the leases would go to Chinese-owned firms.
The Vietnamese government said on Thursday that Nguyen was being detaining on charges of “disturbing public order.”
“In speaking today with the ambassador, we expressed not only our own serious concerns about the arrest and imprisonment of William, but the concerns of a growing number of congressional members,” said a statement issued by the congressmen after the call.
“Our main message to the ambassador was that William must be released, and he must be released immediately,” the statement said. “Our expectation is that the U.S. embassy in Vietnam and the U.S. government do whatever [they] can — at the highest levels — to obtain this release.”
The congressmen also requested that the State Department notify the Vietnamese government that the U.S. expects it to treat Nguyen “well and fairly while in custody.”
Embassy officials met Nguyen on Thursday and found him to be “in good spirits and recovering well from the physical injuries he received during his arrest,” the statement said.
A video on social media showed Nguyen with a bloody head during the demonstration.
But Le Thi Thu Hang, a spokesperson from Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said on Thursday that authorities had not used force on Nguyen, Agence France-Presse reported.
The congressmen said they will contact President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as well as Pham Quang Vinh, Vietnam’s ambassador to the U.S. about getting Nguyen released and about his treatment while in custody.
‘We want him home’
Nguyen’s arrest came two days after the release of Nguyen Van Dai, a prominent Vietnamese rights lawyer and member of the Brotherhood for Democracy, a group he founded in 2013 to defend human rights and promote democratic ideals in Vietnam. Upon his release, Dai was put on a plane to Germany where he was granted asylum.
On April 5, Dai and five other activists were given lengthy jail sentences for conducting activities aimed at overthrowing the state under Article 79 of Vietnam’s Penal Code. Dai was sentenced to 15 years in prison and five years of house arrest.
Rights groups had called on the government to drop charges against Dai and the five others.
“It is in the best interest of the Vietnamese government, and their continuing relations with the U.S., to release William,” the congressmen’s statement said. “The recent praise Hanoi received following the release of activist Nguyen Van Dai should make clear that the international community is watching and will respond accordingly to acts of civility and justice.”
Nguyen’s family, who contacted the congressmen for help, also called for his immediate release in a statement.
“We want him home,” the statement said. “His friends want him home. We demand that he immediately be released. And simply just that. This has escalated out of control, and we demand justice.”
Nguyen’s sister, Victoria Nguyen, spoke with the three U.S lawmakers and others on Capitol Hill on Thursday and told RFA’s Vietnamese Service afterwards: “We just wanted to advocate for him [Nguyen] on his behalf and really just pushed Congress who pushed the Vietnamese government to release him.”
Of the Vietnamese authorities, she said, “It’s wrong that they instill fear in their citizens when they should be empowering them to make their own decisions in their own lives. That’s the right thing to do.”
“What I want to tell them to do is just release Will,” she said. “It was unnecessary. It was uncalled for, and they just need to do the right thing and let him go.”
Meanwhile, Reuters reported that Ho Chi Minh City police issued a prosecution order for Nguyen on Friday.