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U.S. citizen arrested during Vietnam protest still not charged with crime

Earlier this week, Will Nguyen reportedly confessed on state television in Vietnam. His friends and family say the confession appeared to be coerced.

The Vietnamese government has still not charged a U.S. citizen who was arrested there while taking part in a demonstration, but they did allow U.S. consular officers to visit the man last week, the State Department said on Thursday.

Will Nguyen, 32, was taken into custody on June 10 by police in Ho Chi Minh City, where he was protesting the Vietnamese government’s plans to establish special economic zones that demonstrators feared would be dominated by Chinese interests.

Will NguyenCourtesy of Mary Daniel

State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said at a press briefing on Thursday that, according to their understanding of Vietnamese law, authorities in the communist country conduct an investigation before charging someone.

Nauert said consular officers visited Nguyen at the first available opportunity, which was last Friday. She did not discuss his condition or his treatment while being detained.

“Our ambassador and other department personnel are now engaged with congressional representatives on his case, and we are continuing our conversations with congressional representatives,” she said.

Earlier this week, Nguyen, who is of Vietnamese descent, reportedly confessed on state television in Vietnam, saying that he regretted breaking the law and that he will stay away from future rallies, according to Agence-France Presse.

"I understand that my acts violated (the law)... I regret that I caused trouble for people heading to the airport. I blocked traffic and caused trouble to my family and friends," Nguyen said in Vietnamese on Ho Chi Minh City Television in footage provided by city police, AFP reported.

"I will not join any anti-state activities any more," he added.

Kevin Webb, a college friend of Nguyen, said in a phone interview Thursday that Nguyen’s friends and family believe the statement was coerced and staged, based on the way he was speaking. Nguyen's friends and family had seen the taped confession, Webb said Friday.

In Thursday's interview, Webb said Nguyen had not yet been allowed access to an attorney.

“We don’t think that they realized that he was an American citizen when he was detained,” Webb said, referring to Vietnamese authorities. “And so we see the confession as a measure to save face, to get through an awkward situation, from the Vietnamese perspective. They want to justify their actions towards him.”

An email sent to the Vietnamese embassy in the U.S. requesting comment was not immediately returned.

Webb said Nguyen’s sister, mother and friends have all been under great strain having been unable to communicate with Nguyen since he was detained.

So far, they’ve reached out for help to members of Congress — some of whom spoke with the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam and sent a letter to President Donald Trump — and they’ve also met with officials from the State Department, Webb said.

“Everyone has been pushing extremely hard to get attention placed on Will’s case,” he said. “We can’t continue at this pace forever, but we will do what we have to do.”

Nguyen, who was born and raised in Houston, Texas, had stopped in Vietnam for a short vacation while headed back to Singapore, where he is expected to graduate in July from a master’s program at the University of Singapore.

Mary Daniel, another friend of Nguyen, said last week that Nguyen joined the June 10 protest “out of support for the Vietnamese people.”

His 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.

The Associated Press reported last Thursday that Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman told reporters at a regular press briefing that Nguyen was “being held for disturbing public order.”

Family and friends remain concerned about an apparent injury to Nguyen’s head. A bloodied Nguyen was seen in an online video being dragged by a group of men. He later appears standing on the bed of a police truck that drives off.

“We’re deeply concerned by videos that show injuries, and the initial treatment of him on June the 10th,” Nauert, the State Department spokesperson, said during the Thursday news conference.

Webb said Nguyen’s “basic needs appear to be met” and that he is being fed. But he added that they don’t know whether he received medical attention for his apparent head wound.

Meanwhile, 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 Secretary of State Mike 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 congressman wrote to Trump seeking his help.

“We urge your swift intervention on the detention of Mr. William Nguyen and call for all charges against him to be dropped,” the letter reads.

The White House referred a request for comment to the State Department.

Webb said family and friends met last Friday with State Department officials, who he said expressed their clear concern over the case. But concrete details were not provided about a strategy or timeline for bringing Nguyen home, which has frustrated family members, Webb added.

Asked about this in an email, the State Department referred to remarks from its daily press briefing on Thursday.

A motorist looks at charred vehicles burned by protesters at a fire and police station in the south central province of Binh Thuan, Vietnam on June 12, 2018.AP

As Nguyen’s detention continues, Webb said family and friends have been working hard to ensure his story is not forgotten.

“We feel we’ve done almost everything we can at this stage short of hiring legal counsel,” Webb said. “So I think that is the only concrete next step that I know of that we’ve discussed.”

Webb said they’re all anxious for Nguyen’s speedy return.

“Frankly, if that’s the worst thing that comes out of this — that he has a taped confession that’s been run on Vietnamese state television and he gets deported — I think we’ll all be happy with that outcome,” he added.

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