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World News

American jailed for bid to overthrow Vietnam government says he was kidnapped

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A U.S. citizen sentenced last year to 12 years in a Vietnamese jail for “attempting to overthrow the state” spoke of his 27-month detention at a Zoom news conference on Wednesday, after he was released and returned to his home in California last week.

Michael Nguyen, who was born in Vietnam in 1964 and lived in the United States since childhood, was detained in July 2018 on suspicion of anti-government activities, including alleged incitement of protesters to attack government offices with petrol bombs and slingshots, state media reported at the time.

“I was essentially kidnapped, myself and three others, taken off a bus,” Nguyen, the father of four daughters, said of his detention. “No reason was given to me. No credentials were presented to me. I was blindfolded, handcuffed and put into a car by people in civilian clothes.”

He said he was interrogated “for 16 hours at a time for days.”

His trial came nearly a year after he was detained, during which time he had no access to a lawyer, he said. The day before the trial he was provided a public defender “who was given a stack of paper more than 12 inches tall.”

“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,” Nguyen said.

When he tried to speak, he was stopped in court. “They silenced me,” he said.

GUEST OF TRUMP

Nguyen’s wife, Helen, attended U.S. President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech last year as a guest of U.S. Representative Katie Porter, a California Democrat who hosted the Zoom news conference.

Nguyen was convicted under “a broad statute” concerning the overthrow of the state, Porter said.

His release comes ahead of Vietnam’s announcement this week that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was to visit Vietnam on Thursday and Friday as part of a tour of Asia.

Vietnam said Pompeo’s visit was marking the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries, who fought a long war in the 1960s and ‘70s that badly divided the United States.

Just hours before Pompeo was due to arrive in Hanoi, Vietnam’s foreign ministry released a statement saying Nguyen was released for humanitarian reasons.

The statement, which was sent in response to a question submitted a week before Nguyen’s news conference, made no reference to Nguyen’s account of his arrest or interrogation.

Nguyen declined to disclose further details of his imprisonment and release at Thu Duc Prison, saying it could affect the cases of other foreigners jailed in Vietnam.

Vietnam has previously freed imprisoned political activists before the end of their sentences, provided they permanently leave the country.

Nguyen’s release was not reported in Vietnam’s state media.

Reporting by Bill Tarrant in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by James Pearson in Hanoi; Editing by Matthew Lewis, Robert Birsel

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