Will Nguyen, 32, was taken into custody on June 10 by police in Ho Chi Minh City, where he was taking part in protests against the Vietnamese government’s plans to establish special economic zones that demonstrators feared would be dominated by Chinese interests.
A State Department spokesperson said in an email Friday that Vietnamese authorities charged Nguyen with disturbing the public order following an investigation that ended on June 28.
Nguyen’s trial is scheduled to begin on July 20, the State Department said.
A college friend of Nguyen, Kevin Webb, said in a phone interview Friday that the family was still lining up an attorney in Vietnam to represent Nguyen in the court case. He said that should be done within the next day or two.
Webb added that Nguyen’s family told him that Nguyen could face anything from a fine to up to seven years in prison if convicted.
“Regardless of the outcome of the trial, Will’s family is just desperate to get him home as soon as possible,” Webb said.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo raised Nguyen’s case with Vietnamese officials during his visit to the communist country on July 9 and encouraged a speedy resolution, according to the State Department.
Nguyen, who was born and raised in Houston, Texas, had stopped in Vietnam for a short vacation while headed back to Singapore, where he was expected to graduate in July from a master’s program at the University of Singapore.
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Mary Daniel, a friend of Nguyen, has said Nguyen joined the June 10 protest “out of support for the Vietnamese people.”
Those country-wide demonstrations in Vietnam came amid concerns that a controversial draft law on special economic zones would benefit Chinese investors, according to The Associated Press. Vietnam’s National Assembly voted to put off passing the legislation until the next session in October to allow for more research.
Nguyen’s family and friends alleged in a statement issued after the arrest that Nguyen was “beaten over the head and dragged into the back of a police truck” after police tried to clear the protests.
A video uploaded to YouTube that was shared along with the statement from family and friends in June appears to show Nguyen, bleeding from his head, being dragged by a group of men. Nguyen can later be seen standing on the bed of a police truck that drives off.
The State Department did not provide details of the indictment against Nguyen. But the Vietnamese state-run Tuoi Tre newspaper, quoting from the indictment, said Nguyen is accused of calling on other protesters to overrun police barricades as they marched from a park near the city’s international airport to the city center, according to The AP.
Nguyen allegedly climbed into one of four police pickups, which were used to block a road, and urged others to climb over the vehicles to continue their march, the indictment reportedly said. His actions “seriously violated public order and badly affected security order, social safety and needs to be dealt with seriously,” the indictment alleged.
The newspaper also quoted prosecutors as saying Nguyen’s prison sentence could be reduced if he shows remorse, the AP reported.
An email sent to the Vietnamese embassy in the U.S. requesting comment was not immediately returned.
A little more than a week after his arrest, Nguyen reportedly confessed on state television in Vietnam, saying he regretted breaking the law and that he will stay away from future rallies, according to Agence-France Presse.
Webb previously said Nguyen’s friends and family believe the statement was coerced and staged, based on the way he was speaking.
Webb said the family won’t know whether they can attend the trial until they hear from the attorney they retain for Nguyen in Vietnam. Nguyen’s family has been in Singapore to accept Nguyen’s master’s degree diploma on his behalf at the school’s graduation.
The State Department said Nguyen’s most recent consular visit was on June 29. Consular officials were next scheduled to meet with Nguyen on July 14, Vietnam time, according to Webb.
More than a dozen members of Congress signed letters dated June 15 that were sent to Vietnam’s ambassador to the U.S., Pham Quang Vinh, and Pompeo, expressing concern over Nguyen’s detention.
In a statement, Reps. Alan Lowenthal, Jimmy Gomez and Lou Correa, all Democrats from California, where Nguyen lived for a period, said they also spoke with U.S. ambassador to Vietnam Daniel Kritenbrink about the case.
And in a letter dated June 19, the three congressmen wrote to President Donald Trump seeking his help.
Webb said Nguyen’s family “has been hoping for stronger language and more overt action from the government and from the State Department from the beginning.”
But, he added, “At the end of the day, even if he’s found guilty and the sentence is a fine, so long as he’s out, the family will be able to move on and everything will be okay.”