A Vietnamese-American pro-democracy activist who was freed by Hanoi after being detained for nine months on subversion charges returned to the United States feeling sad for the scores of dissidents and activists still languishing in prisons in the tightly controlled state.
"I feel very happy to see my family again," Nguyen Quoc Quan, 59, told RFA's Vietnamese Service on arrival at the Los Angeles International Airport late Wednesday.
"But when I left Vietnam I felt sad. I felt as if I left behind some people who are accused of the same crime like me but they have to be in prison for 12 or 13 years. I felt that I have not done much to help them," said Quan, whose release was credited to international pressure on the Vietnamese government.
He reportedly brought back a handwritten letter from another prisoner, the contents of which have not been disclosed.
Vietnamese authorities initially accused Quan of terrorism after his arrest on arrival in Vietnam in April last year. They later amended the charge to subversion against the state for merely being a member of Viet Tan, a U.S.-based opposition group outlawed in the one-party communist state.
Quan was set to go on trial earlier this month but the proceedings were cancelled without official explanation.
Hanoi's decision to deport Quan without hauling him to court was in sharp contrast to its imprisonment earlier this month of 14 Vietnamese activists linked to Viet Tan. They were sentenced to between three and 13 years in jail.
Vietnamese authorities have jailed dozens of political dissidents, activists, bloggers, and journalists since launching a crackdown on freedom of expression at the end of 2009.
By the end of 2012, at least 40 Vietnamese activists were convicted and sentenced to many years in prison on various charges—subversion, undermining unity, propaganda against the state, disrupting security, and infringing state interests, according to Human Rights Watch.
It was a substantial increase to the figures for 2011, and at least 31 others were arrested and kept in detention pending trial by the end of 2012, the U.S.-based group said.
Quan said that pressure from the U.S. government and other international groups was an "important" factor in his release and that the Vietnamese authorities did not have evidence to substantiate their charges against him in court.
"When they postponed the trial, I was glad, but I think the judge and the prosecutors of Ho Chi Minh City may be happier than me because they would not have to decide against their conscience," he said.
"They can't force a crime on me, I am a foreign citizen. The trial will have to be open to the public and more people will pay attention ... and the truth would be revealed."
Quan, who received his doctorate in mathematics from North Carolina State University, is a former high school teacher in Vietnam.
He was previously detained by Vietnamese authorities in November 2007 and held for six months for distributing materials promoting nonviolent tactics for civil resistance before being deported in May 2008.
"One month after my [latest] arrest, one investigator told me that 'the last time you came, you were imprisoned for six months, now you came again, maybe we have to keep you for one year and no need to go to court.'" he said.
"To me that was a personal statement, but somehow it showed their measure to intimidate people who want to contribute to the cause."
His Vietnam-based lawyer Nguyen Thi Anh Huong told RFA that she was surprised to learn of his release, saying she first heard the news from the media before confirming it with the U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City.
"They just wanted Quan to board the airplane and leave Vietnam safely. After that, the media can carry the news," she said.
Huong said the authorities could not charge Quan with terrorism because they did not have any evidence to back up the charge.
When Quan arrived in Vietnam, "he brought along nothing but a philosophy book and nine pages about 'soft skills' and a blank computer."
"With such evidence, they can't charge him with terrorism," she said.
The authorities also could not provide proof of the subversion charge.
"If you say he entered Vietnam to plot something, then there must be some activities, but he has not done anything."
Huong also said that Quan's firm stand led to his release, citing three hunger strikes he staged during his detention.
Quan is undeterred by his nine-month imprisonment and wants to visit Vietnam again.
"Going back to my country is a big dream, going back to fulfill what I want is my big dream. It is hard to say when I will go back."
Reported by Chan Nhu and Gia Minh for RFA's Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.