Updated at 4:20 p.m. EST on 2013-01-30
Authorities in Hanoi have freed an American pro-democracy activist of Vietnamese descent detained for nine months on charges of subversion, official media said Wednesday.
Nguyen Quoc Quan, 59, was released and deported home following international pressure, including from Washington, rights groups and his lawyer said.
Quan, a member of the Viet Tan Party—a U.S.-based opposition group outlawed in the one-party communist state—was arrested on April 17 last year on arrival in Vietnam and charged with terrorism for allegedly trying to disrupt the anniversary of the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam conflict.
However, four months later, the Vietnamese government amended the democracy activist’s charges from terrorism, under Article 84 of the Vietnamese Penal Code, to subversion, under Article 79, for merely being a member of Viet Tan.
Viet Tan has rejected Hanoi charges, saying it was an attempt to smear the group's peaceful activities.
Vietnamese media reported on Wednesday that Quan, also known as Richard Nguyen, had acknowledged his crimes but his wife rejected the claim.
"Quan admitted his crimes, asking for leniency so that he could go back to the United States and be with his family," the state-run Vietnam News Agency said in an online report Wednesday.
Quan was due to go on trial earlier this month but the proceedings were cancelled without official explanation.
In a statement Wednesday, Viet Tan expressed gratitude to the international community for exerting pressure on the Vietnamese government to secure Quan’s freedom.
“After months of illegal detention with limited access to legal counsel, Dr. Quan’s release comes amidst immense international pressure for his case,” the statement said.
“Viet Tan opposes the illegal detention of Dr. Quan and strongly rejects the Hanoi regime’s attempt at smearing the peaceful activities of Viet Tan.”
Quan’s U.S.-based attorney Linda Malone called the activist’s release “a major and wonderful surprise,” particularly in light of the Vietnamese government’s ongoing crackdown on dissidents and activists.
“Vietnamese authorities have been quoted as saying that he had admitted to his charges and asked for leniency,” Malone said.
“His wife has noted that this is patently untrue as, if he had admitted to the charges, he could have been released months ago,” she said.
Malone said media attention, public concern, and the efforts of the U.S. State Department had been “critical in preventing conviction of a U.S. citizen for exercising a clearly protected human right to freedom of speech and thought.”
Quan, who received his doctorate in mathematics from North Carolina State University, is a former high school teacher in Vietnam. He resides in California.
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.
Vietnamese authorities have jailed dozens of political dissidents since launching a crackdown on freedom of expression at the end of 2009.
Earlier this month, a court convicted 14 activists, including Catholics, students, and blogger under Article 79 for their involvement with Viet Tan. Nearly all of them were ordered jailed for between three and 13 years in prison.
This week, 22 members of an obscure environmental group went on trial for trying to “overthrow” the country’s communist leadership.
Reported by Joshua Lipes.