U.S. citizen Michael Nguyen, who was released early from a 12-year prison sentence in Vietnam last week, said Wednesday he was not aware he was being released until he was taken to the airport in Ho Chi Minh City more than two years after he was “essentially kidnapped” by unidentified men.
During a video press conference hosted by his congressional representative Katie Porter, the California resident Nguyen said Vietnamese authorities did not clearly communicate the “attempting to overthrow the people’s government and state” charges against him before hastily convicting him in a sham trial.
He was allowed very limited contact at observed meetings with U.S. consular officers, through which he was able to receive and deliver letters to his family.
“The first 2 months, I had no communication with my family at all. I knew nothing of how they were doing, of their health, or of their lives,” said Nguyen.
“After that, I would get letters from my family about once every 5 weeks or so, yet nothing was private. What was written in those letters was first read by my jailers,” he said in written statement read on video.
Nguyen had gone missing on July 6, 2018 while visiting friends and relatives in Vietnam, with his whereabouts unknown for more than three weeks.
Jailed in Vietnam on charges of “attempting to overthrow the people’s government and state” under Article 109 of Vietnam’s 2015 Penal Code, Nguyen was sentenced in June 2019 to a 12-year term, but was last week suddenly released “on humanitarian grounds”, returning to his home in California on Oct. 22—two years and four months after he disappeared.
During the press conference Wednesday, Nguyen said for 11 months of pre-trial detention he did not have access to lawyers.
“After almost a year of being detained, they held a ‘trial.’” The day before that ‘trial,’ they provided me with a public defender, but he could not possibly defend me because one day before the ‘trial’—one day before—he was given a stack of papers more than 12 inches tall, with charges against me, and so called ‘evidence’ against me, with no time to possibly review, to question their so called ‘evidence,’ to have any sort of due process or justice under the law,” said Nguyen.
“They had written out a statement for me to sign and the public defender’s main job was to get me to sign a statement of words that were not even my own,” he said.
Nguyen added that in court he had no opportunity to defend himself. They told him he could explain his side of the story, but when he started to speak, they abruptly stopped him.
He recounted how he was arrested, saying he and three others were “essentially kidnapped” with no explanation, with arresting authorities not even identifying themselves.
“I was blindfolded, handcuffed and put into a car by people in civilian clothes. I was fearful,” he said.
During most of the first month after his arrest Nguyen was denied his right to meet with the U.S. Consulate.
“I was detained and interrogated for 16 hours at a time, on many days…Twelve days later, the consulate was finally advised of my situation,” he said.
“After 24 days of detention, under the jailer’s supervision, I was able to meet with a consulate staff member about once every five weeks. Our conversations were monitored in person, and we could only talk about my health and basic needs. Not about my case,” Nguyen said.
He said the meetings with the consulate were the only means he had to exchange letters with his family.
“Even my release was completely secret to me until I was at the airport in Saigon,” he said, using the former name for Ho Chi Minh City.
He noted that the U.S. State Department had advised his family not to say things publicly that could compromise his case.
“I will do the same, not speaking further about my own case so I do not impact other people’s cases,” he said, referring to other people he was detained with during his time at Thu Duc (Ham Tan) Prison, and two men that were convicted alongside him.
Huynh Duc Thanh Binh and Tran Long Phi were sentenced to 10 years and eight years, respectively, as the government had accused the three of plotting with a previously unknown group to help incite protests that erupted across Vietnam in opposition to two controversial bills, one regarding special economic zones (SEZ) and the other concerning cybersecurity.
Nguyen expressed gratitude to Representative Porter and several other lawmakers, as well as the U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, Daniel Kritenbrink, for advocating for his release. He also thanked Orange County, California, particularly its Vietnamese community, for their steadfast support.