Michael Nguyen, a U.S. citizen of Vietnamese ethnicity jailed in Vietnam since last year on charges of attempting to overthrow the government, has been released from prison and allowed to return to his home in California, family and media sources said on Monday.
Nguyen had been serving a 12-year term, but was suddenly sent home on Oct. 22, Nguyen’s brother-in-law Mark Roberts confirmed to RFA’s Vietnamese Service via text message on Oct. 24.
“He arrived home on Thursday evening. His health seems fine,” Roberts said.
The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi confirmed Nguyen’s release from prison on Oct. 21, saying he had been freed on “humanitarian grounds,” the Reuters news service reported on Monday, adding that the news of Nguyen’s release was not reported in Vietnamese state media.
In Washington, a State Department spokesperson confirmed and welcomed the release.
“We confirm that Michael Nguyen departed Vietnam on October 21. We welcome his release on humanitarian grounds,” said the spokesperson.
Nguyen, a resident of California and father of four, disappeared on July 6, 2018 while visiting friends and relatives in Vietnam, and his whereabouts and condition remained unknown for more than three weeks.
He was sentenced on June 24, 2019 to 12 years in jail by the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Court for “attempting to overthrow the people’s government and state” under Article 109 of Vietnam’s 2015 Penal Code.
His sentence was upheld on appeal on July 11, 2019, and he was sent back to prison to serve his full term.
Two men convicted with Nguyen, Huynh Duc Thanh Binh and Tran Long Phi, were sentenced in June to 10 years and eight years, respectively, but did not appeal their verdicts.
Government authorities had accused the three of plotting with a previously unknown group to help incite protests that erupted across Vietnam on June 10 in opposition to two controversial bills, one regarding special economic zones (SEZ) and the other concerning cybersecurity.
Repeated calls for release
Alan Lowenthal, a California representative to the U.S. Congress, and other U.S. lawmakers had repeatedly called for Nguyen’s release from prison, urging intervention by the U.S. government.
Nguyen’s wife Helen also attended U.S. President Trump’s February 2019 State of the Union address in an attempt to raise awareness of his case.
“The message in Michael’s release is public and private pressure on the Vietnam government works when it is consistently applied on cases of dissidents who should never have been arrested, much less imprisoned, in the first place,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement quoted by Reuters.
Estimates of the number of prisoners of conscience held in Vietnam’s jails vary widely. Human Rights Watch says that authorities held 138 political prisoners as of October 2019, while rights group Defend the Defenders says that at least 240 are in detention, with 36 convicted last year alone.
Vietnam’s already low tolerance of dissent has deteriorated sharply this year with a spate of arrests of independent journalists and publishers, as well as Facebook personalities, in the run-up to the ruling Communist Party conference in January.