Vietnam releases, deports American after more than a month in detention

July 20, 2018 - 4:35 pm
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(HANOI, Vietnam) --  Vietnam has convicted an American who was beaten and detained by police during a protest last month and expelled him from the country.

But after he was held for 40 days in custody, it was welcome news for Will Nguyen, his family, and the U.S., which had pushed Vietnamese officials for his release.

"WILL IS COMING HOME!!!" happily declared a Facebook group called "Free Will Nguyen" and run by his family after a Vietnamese court made the decision Friday. The group also sent a tweet of gratitude, saying, "Infinite and immeasurable thanks to come from us. We could not have achieved this without any of you and are quite literally, eternally grateful."

The Trump administration was quick to celebrate as well, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeting, "I'm tremendously pleased that American citizen William Nguyen will return home to his family from #Vietnam." Pompeo visited Vietnam in early July and called for "a speedy resolution to his case" in meetings with senior Vietnamese leaders, according to the State Department.

But the Nguyen family had continually pressed the U.S. government to do more to secure his immediate release, with his sister Victoria Nguyen telling ABC News last week they were frustrated that officials were "almost avoiding talking about it and being dismissive of my concerns or issues I've raised."

A 32-year old graduate student originally from Houston, Texas, Will was charged with "disrupting the peace" after he was arrested June 10 in Ho Chi Minh City. A Yale University graduate, he had finished his master's degree at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore on a full scholarship when, during a break before graduation, he visited Vietnam for a few days, as he and his family have almost annually for years.

While there, protests erupted in major cities across the country against a newly-proposed economic policy that would grant special land leases or economic zones to foreign companies, in particular, the Chinese. Despite prevailing anti-Chinese sentiment in many parts of the country, Vietnam has growing economic ties to the major power to its north -- something the U.S. has been competing with.

Will joined the protests in Ho Chi Minh City, according to his sister, because he is proudly Vietnamese-American and considered it "a civic duty ... to support the Vietnamese people and their freedom of assembly."

He even tweeted photos from his personal Twitter account of the protests, saying, "This is #democracy in #Vietnam."

But Vietnam is a communist country with one-party rule, and although it has modernized and reformed over the past couple decades to allow for some more economic freedoms and human rights, protests are often met with violent crackdowns and prolonged detentions.

Will was one of about 150 people arrested during the protests, with reports of detainees tortured or beaten with sticks while in government custody, according to human rights groups. Like many of the others, they said, he was beaten by police before being detained, although there have been no reports that he was harmed after his arrest.

In one video of the incident, Will is first seen on the ground being punched and then dragged through the streets while squirming. He is visibly wounded, blood covering the left side of his head and some of his face, and someone tries to put an orange bag over his head.

He's seen moments later in another video standing in the back of a police pick-up truck, appearing disoriented and waving to someone in the distance, gashes now visible on the left side of his head. Then, the truck drives off and out of the camera's eye as an officer is seen grappling with Will in the back.

He was first seen again in a confession video released by Vietnamese police days later, where he apologizes for holding up traffic and causing trouble for his family and promises not to participate in any anti-government protests. Consular officials from the U.S. embassy were able to visit him on three different occasions to ensure he was being treated well.

Nguyen's family maintains that even if his participation in a protest was prohibited, his brutal treatment by Vietnamese authorities is outrageous. It's unclear if they will demand a response by the U.S., but Victoria Nguyen told ABC News last week there should be human rights sanctions on the country's government: "He was beaten and dragged... There hasn't been any accountability."

The Nguyen family has not yet responded to request for comment.

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