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Vietnam frees US activist after nine months

HANOI, Vietnam: Vietnamese authorities yesterday released and deported an American pro-democracy activist detained since April, a move that contrasts with the long prison terms given to Vietnamese activists who are members of the same US-based dissident group.
The release of Nguyen Quoc Quan came after US diplomatic pressure and removes an obvious thorn in relations between the former enemies. Both countries are trying to strengthen their ties in large part because of shared concerns over China’s emerging military and economic might, but American concerns over human rights in one-party, authoritarian Vietnam are complicating this.
Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Quan had “confessed to his crime” and asked for leniency to be reunited with his family. His wife, Huong Mai Ngo, said she doubted this was the case, suggesting that Hanoi was seeking a face-saving way of allowing him to go home.
“I don’t believe it. They say that about everybody,” she said via telephone from Sacramento. “If my husband was prepared to do that (confess), he could have been released nine months ago.”
Given the diplomatic sensitivities around the case, most observers had expected Quan to be released and quietly deported.
Quan, an American citizen, was arrested at Ho Chi Minh City’s airport in April after arriving on a flight from the United States, where he has lived since fleeing Vietnam by boat as a young man. The 59-year-old is a leading member of Viet Tan, a nonviolent pro-democracy group that Vietnamese authorities have labeled a terrorist organization. He was detained in 2007 in Vietnam for six months, also on charges relating to his pro-democracy activities, before being deported.
Authorities initially accused Quan of terrorism, but he was later charged with subversion against the state, which carries penalties ranging from 12 years in prison to death. Earlier this month, 14 Vietnamese activists associated with Viet Tan were sentenced to up to 13 years in jail.
Ngo said she had yet to speak to her husband, who was on a plane home, but that the US consulate had informed her of his release.