O.C. man jailed in Vietnam for 27 months returns home, thanks community of people fighting for his release

Anh Do
Michael Nguyen stands during his trial, Monday, June 24, 2019, in Ho Chin Minh City, Vietnam. The American of Vietnamese origin was sentenced to 12 years in prison for "attempt to overthrow the state." (Nguyen Thanh Chung/Vietnam News Agency via AP)
Michael Nguyen stands at his trial on June 24, 2019, in Ho Chi Minh City. (Nguyen Thanh Chung / Associated Press)

An Orange County man wrongly jailed for 27 months in Vietnam for alleged actions to overthrow the government is home and, in his first public remarks Wednesday, thanked the community of residents and legislators who fought for his safe return.

Michael Nguyen, 57, a native of Vietnam, appeared at a virtual news conference, with his wife, Helen, by his side and in front of the American flag, to read from a long statement. Nguyen, who landed on U.S. soil Sunday, said that what he endured "was nothing compared to the grace I received from God, through so many of you."

In July 2018, Nguyen was visiting relatives and traveling in Da Nang when strangers in civilian clothes pulled him off a tour bus, blindfolded him and took him away without offering a reason. Months later, Vietnamese authorities told U.S. Embassy officials they were investigating him on allegations of violating Article 109 of the criminal code, citing his activities and "violent measures" against the communist government.

Nguyen was reluctant to offer more details on his imprisonment and release, citing earlier instructions from the U.S. State Department that warned family members not to "compromise his case."

Desperate and bewildered after her husband was seized, Helen Nguyen, a surgical nurse, jumped into action aided by Mark Roberts, her brother-in-law. The two mounted a bilingual campaign to call attention to the prisoner's plight and to keep his name in the headlines.

They tapped Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine), who led a bipartisan effort to push for Nguyen's freedom and who described the father of four as someone "who sees injustice in the world and wants to do something about it."

State Department officials called Nguyen's case an unacceptable violation of human rights.

"It is overwhelming that so many people worked so hard and for so long to reunite me with my family," Nguyen said. His wife and four daughters had no communication with the print shop owner during his first two months of imprisonment.

Michael Nguyen sits with his wife and four daughters.
Michael Nguyen sits with his family after spending 27 months wrongly jailed in Vietnam for alleged actions to overthrow the government.

After that, he received pre-screened letters from the family about once every five weeks, he recalled. For 11 months, he lacked access to lawyers, and after almost a year behind bars, officials forced Nguyen to go to court, assigning him a public defender just 24 hours beforehand.

"But he could not possibly defend me because one day before the 'trial,' one day before," Nguyen said, "he was given a stack of papers more than 12 inches tall, with charges against me and so-called evidence, with no time to possibly review, to question their so-called evidence, to have any sort of due process or justice under the law."

Nguyen said that officials had issued a document for him to sign and that "the public defender's main job was to get me to sign a statement of words that were not even my own."

They accused him and two Vietnamese men arrested with him — Tran Long Phi and Huynh Duc Thanh Binh, both in their 20s — of hatching a plan "to incite 100 people to join a protest accompanied by a staged traffic jam, to buy weapons to resist government agencies, and to prepare food and shelters for their long-term fights,” according to an indictment detailed in the government-controlled Tuoi Tre newspaper.

In the courtroom, "they told me I could explain myself, but when I started to speak, they stopped me," Nguyen said. "They silenced me."

In June 2019, Nguyen, looking haggard in a photo, received a sentence of 12 years for "attempting to overthrow the state."

His family learned of his punishment via social media. Meanwhile, members of Orange County's prominent Vietnamese American community continued to plead for help.

Porter had invited Helen Nguyen to be her guest at President Trump's State of the Union speech in 2019, hoping to shine the spotlight on her husband's arrest.

Porter reached out to fellow California Democrats. Rep. Alan Lowenthal of Long Beach hosted a town hall with Dan Kritenbrink, the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, and introduced Nguyen's family to him. Reps. Lou Correa of Santa Ana, Harley Rouda of Laguna Beach and Brad Sherman of Northridge sent letters to demand that the Vietnamese government free Nguyen along with other prisoners of conscience. Texas Democratic Rep. Al Green and Florida Republican Rep. Ted Yoho, the ranking member on the Asia subcommittee of the House Foreign Relations Committee, kept up the pressure — with Roberts, the brother-in-law, coordinating and spreading their messages.

Nguyen can't forget the countless prisoners, including foreigners, who remain at the Thu Duc prison.

"Many of them did not have people back home fighting for them. Many of these people suffered even more than I did. I want to respect their cases," he said. "They don't have Helen as their wife, and their governments might not fight for them like my government fought for me."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.