A U.S. citizen of Vietnamese ethnicity missing since earlier this month has been confirmed held by Vietnam’s government, a member of his family said Thursday, calling his detention a violation of international law and demanding his immediate release.
Michael Phuong Minh Nguyen, a 54-year-old father of four from California, disappeared on July 6 while visiting friends and relatives in Vietnam, and his whereabouts and condition were unknown for more than three weeks.
On July 31, the U.S. Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City Franc Shelton confirmed that Nguyen had been arrested and was being held at a detention center in the city while under investigation for “activity against the People’s government,” according to Article 109 of Vietnam’s Penal Code, his brother-in-law Robert Mark told reporters Thursday at a press conference in Orange County, California.
“We spoke to Franc Shelton ... he advised us that Michael is in Ho Chi Minh City, that he is alive and appears to be in good health,” Mark said.
“The investigation could last three to five months and could be extended, should the Vietnamese authorities choose to do so.”
Mark said that during the investigation, Nguyen is not allowed any family visits or access to a lawyer, and cannot receive any letters or other written communication, “even from his children.”
Nguyen will only be allowed a visit from a representative of the U.S. consulate once a month, he added.
According to Mark, Nguyen will be provided with one basic meal per day and will be permitted to spend a maximum of U.S. $80 per month—or U.S. $2.67 daily—on food and other necessities.
“That amount of money in Vietnam today will buy a person about one bowl of soup that is mostly broth and some noodles,” he said.
Mark stressed that “no formal charges have been filed against or brought against” Nguyen.
“During this three- to five-month investigative stage, they do not have to bring any charges against him ... allowing them, according to their legal system, to deny Michael Nguyen the access to due process and legal justice that we so value here in the United States,” he said.
“We hope that this absence of any formal charges clears any suspicions that Michael was involved in any form of anti-government activities.”
Mark, speaking on behalf of Nguyen’s family, asked Vietnam’s government to release him “immediately,” adding that “detaining anyone without charging them with a crime, without probable cause, is a violation of human rights and international law.”
He called the confirmation that Nguyen is alive a “positive sign,” and said his family will now work to “obtain Michael's release and safe return to the United States.”
Nguyen’s family recently posted a petition on Change.org which had received nearly 7,000 signatures as of Thursday, urging Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to intervene on his behalf in talks with Vietnamese counterparts and calling for assistance from U.S. lawmakers.
Local Congresswoman Mimi Walters, who has been working to support Nguyen’s family since his disappearance, said during Thursday’s press conference that her “highest priority is to secure Mr. Nguyen's freedom and to ensure his safety.”
She said that she plans to speak with Vietnam’s ambassador Ha Kim Ngoc in Washington on Friday “to let him know that it is unacceptable to detain American citizens in Vietnam.”
“The Vietnamese government needs to know that there will be consequences if they don't treat American citizens with respect,” she added.
A statement recently released by the family did not address where Michael Nguyen was traveling or what he was doing on the day he disappeared, but noted that Vietnam had seen large-scale protests in recent months over government plans to grant long-term leases to foreign companies operating in special economic zones (SEZs) and against a controversial new cybersecurity law seen as restrictive by the country’s netizens.
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.
Following a half-day trial at the People’s Court of Ho Chi Minh City on July 20, Will Nguyen was found guilty of “disturbing public order” under penal code article 318 and ordered to leave Vietnam, weeks after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had traveled to Vietnam and urged government officials to find a quick resolution to his case.
After demonstrations against the land concession proposal spread to several cities throughout Vietnam in June, authorities arrested dozens of protesters and have sentenced several to 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.