US-Vietnamese prisoner's wife appeals for US help

Lachlan Carmichael
This undated picture taken by the Vietnam News Agency shows pro-democracy activist Nguyen Quoc Quan, a US citizen of Vietnamese origin, being detained in Ho Chi Minh City. His wife has appealed for US help in obtaining his release

The wife of a US citizen held in Vietnam urged Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Tuesday to push for his release, as a senior US official said Hanoi's respect for human rights is deteriorating.

A House of Representatives panel heard the plea from Mai Huong Ngo, the wife of Nguyen Quoc Quan who was reported arrested on April 17 in Ho Chi Minh City.

"I come here to appeal for your assistance in securing my husband's release from arbitrary detention in Vietnam," Mai Huong Ngo told the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission panel.

Her voice breaking at times during the testimony, Ngo personally appealed to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the US ambassador to Hanoi, David Shear, to "call for the immediate release of my husband."

She was due later to meet with Michael Posner, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor who told the commission that Vietnam's "respect for human rights continues to deteriorate."

Ngo said US consular staff have visited her husband once and were due to visit him again at the end of May. She said he needed cooler clothes to make him more comfortable in the hot weather.

State media said Quan, also known as Richard Nguyen, was detained at Tan Son Nhat airport upon "trying to enter Vietnam to instigate a demonstration and undermine celebrations" on the anniversary of the 1975 fall of Saigon.

The Vietnam News Agency (VNA) said he will be detained for four months pending an investigation for the charge of "terrorism against the people's administration," which could lead to the death penalty if convicted.

Communist Vietnam, however, has never executed a foreign citizen for political charges.

The 59-year-old Nguyen, a member of the outlawed Viet Tan Party, received a six-month jail sentence for terror charges and was deported out of Vietnam in May 2008, VNA said.

Viet Tan, the Vietnam Reform Party, describes itself as non-violent and pro-democracy group. Vietnam however labels it as "terrorist."

Posner said Vietnam continues to "unjustly detain and imprison individuals for exercising their basic human rights," estimating the government holds around 100 "prisoners of conscience."

He also charged that there is growing restrictions on the print media, television and the Internet, citing recent decrees that "stifle an already restricted press."

Posner complained about legal provisions that allow the government to target peaceful protesters and outlaw "propaganda," which he said was used against a musician who posted a political song on the internet.

He also said the United States is concerned about harassment of Christian groups and disputes with Buddhist groups, even though Vietnam's constitution guarantees freedom of religion.

Activist Vo Van Ai told the panel that many Americans "believe that the strengthening of US relations with Hanoi means that human rights are improving in Vietnam."

"But this is far from the case," according to the president and founder of Que Me: Action for Democracy in Vietnam.

"The government has pursued a systematic crackdown on freedom of opinion, expression, religion and assembly," he said.

"Arbitrary detention, torture and harassments are the daily lot of citizens who express opinions in contradiction with the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam," he said.

President Barack Obama's administration has frequently urged Vietnam to make progress on human rights but it has nonetheless rapidly expanded relations, which both sides have sought amid the rise of China.

During a speech in Hawaii in November, Clinton said that Vietnam must improve its human rights record if it seeks better relations as the two countries held talks on the issue.