A Vietnamese court has sentenced an American to 12 years in jail for what was described as an attempt to overthrow the Communist nation’s government.
The state-owned Tuoi Tre newspaper reported Tuesday that 55-year-old Michael Nguyen was also convicted of inciting people to participate in protests with the intent to attack government offices in the capital, Hanoi, and in southern Ho Chi Minh City. According to Tuoi Tre, the defendants “prepared leaflets, created petrol bombs, and made slingshots to attack police and government buildings.”
Tellingly, the paper also accused the alleged conspirators of using “Facebook and email accounts to discuss Vietnam’s social and political affairs with some people in foreign countries.”
Two Vietnamese men, Huynh Duc Thanh Binh, 23, and Tran Long Phi, 21, were sentenced to 10 and 8 years in prison respectively on the same charges after a half-day trial Monday in Ho Chi Minh City. They were arrested last July in Ho Chi Minh City after returning from Hue in central Vietnam, where they had traveled to recruit more anti-government protesters, according to the state media report.
The protests Nguyen is accused of planning did not occur.
Nguyen pleaded guilty to the charges, according to his lawyer, and asked for a reduced sentence so that he could rejoin his family in the United States. “Michael admitted guilt at the trial and asked the jury to reduce his sentence so that he could soon reunite with his family,” lawyer Nguyen Van Mieng told Reuters. The plea for leniency apparently fell on deaf ears.
Nguyen is from Orange County, California, home to a sizable Vietnamese diaspora. He is married and has four children; his wife was a guest of Representative Katie Porter at President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address earlier this year.
“I’m disappointed with this outcome, and my heart aches for the Nguyen family and for our Orange County community,” Porter told the Orange County Register newspaper in an email.
Another member of Congress, Representative Alan Lowenthal, told the Orange County Register that “Michael Nguyen is innocent.”
“The facts of the case are simple: an American citizen, Michael Nguyen, was convicted by the communist Vietnamese government in the hope it would deter other Vietnamese Americans from visiting Vietnam and exposing the Vietnamese people to ‘radical’ ideas like democracy, freedom, and human rights,” Lowenthal said.
“His continued imprisonment further degrades U.S.-Vietnam relations.”
Nguyen’s wife, Helen Nguyen, was quoted by the newspaper as saying the sentence was “a slap to the United States.”
Nguyen’s family has denied that he “was involved with any political activities” while in Vietnam, according to the Orange County Register. They say he was in the country to visit relatives and friends. Nguyen was born in Vietnam but moved to the United States while still a child.
The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi said in a statement Tuesday that it was disappointed by the verdict and will “continue to raise our concerns regarding Mr. Nguyen’s case, and his welfare, at all appropriate levels.”
Protests are rare in Vietnam, where the Communist authorities do not tolerate criticism of the government. More than a dozen people were tried last year on charges of conducting anti-government propaganda.
Human Rights Watch ranks Vietnam among countries with the least freedom of expression.
By The Associated Press, with additional reporting by The Diplomat.