A court in Vietnam on Friday ordered the deportation of a U.S. citizen it found guilty of “disturbing public order,” media reports said, after he took part in rare, large-scale protests over government plans to grant long-term leases to foreign companies operating in special economic zones (SEZs).
William Nguyen, a 32-year-old graduate student of Vietnamese descent from Houston, Texas, was beaten by police and detained along with other protesters on June 10 in Ho Chi Minh City after attending what began the day before as a peaceful demonstration over the concession proposal, which had stirred public fears that the leases would go to Chinese-owned firms.
In tweets posted from the rallies, Nguyen had described clashes between citizens and the police, but state media said the American student had also urged protesters to overrun police barricades as they marched toward the city center.
Video footage of the protest shows men in civilian clothing and surgical masks, believed to be plainclothes police, restraining Nguyen—whose head is covered in blood—and dragging him away from the area. Days later, Nguyen apologized on state television for his presence at the demonstrations and promised to stay away from protests in the future.
Following a half-day trial at the People’s Court of Ho Chi Minh City on Friday, Nguyen was found guilty of “disturbing public order” under penal code article 318 and ordered to leave Vietnam, Agence France-Presse reported, citing a court clerk.
State media said that the court decided not to hand Nguyen a jail term because he had “acknowledged his illegal activities” and had shown remorse for his actions. He had faced up to seven years in prison if convicted.
James Thrower, a spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, welcomed the resolution of Nguyen’s case in an emailed statement to Reuters news agency, adding that the student “will be deported after paying a fine.”
Nguyen’s sister Victoria Nguyen confirmed her brother’s release in a Facebook message on Friday, which read “Will is coming home,” and posted several pictures of him reuniting with family members at an undisclosed location.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had traveled to Vietnam earlier this month and urged government officials to find a quick resolution to Nguyen’s case.
The court verdict came days after 19 members of U.S. Congress wrote a letter to Pompeo, calling on him to employ “all diplomatic means” to free the graduate student.
New York-based Human Rights Watch had also demanded that Vietnam “immediately drop the criminal charges, release Nguyen and others arrested,” in a statement on Thursday, noting that those detained had simply exercised their rights to peaceful assembly and expression, according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—which is endorsed by Hanoi.
After demonstrations against the land concession proposal spread to several cities throughout Vietnam in June, authorities arrested dozens of protesters and have since sentenced six people to up to two-and-a-half years in prison. The government eventually tabled the proposal, pending “further research.”
Rights group Amnesty International estimates that at least 97 prisoners of conscience are currently held in Vietnam’s prisons, where many are subjected to torture or other ill-treatment.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.