Nguyen Quoc Quan would be among the 28,000 Sacramentans marching to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this morning if he weren't in a Vietnamese prison for practicing King's mantra for change – nonviolent protest.
Nguyen, 59, was scheduled to go on trial later today in the People's Court in Ho Chi Minh City for "activities aimed at overthrowing the People's government," according to his indictment.
He was arrested at Ho Chi Minh airport last April under the name Richard Nguyen – one of several trips he'd made to promote democracy in Vietnam after being barred from the country in 2008.
A devotee of King and Mahatma Gandhi, Nguyen was first arrested by Vietnamese authorities in 2007 for trying to distribute 7,000 fliers he had written about civil disobedience.
After six months in a Vietnamese prison, he was convicted of terrorism in 2008, deported and ordered never to return to the country he'd escaped by fishing boat in 1981.
Reunited with his wife and two sons in Elk Grove, Nguyen told The Bee he was no terrorist, but admitted he'd written the two-page flier, "Non-Violent Struggle: The Approach to Eradicate Dictatorship, Set the Stage for Democracy."
The flier calls for widespread civil disobedience and urges protesters to "faithfully maintain the discipline of nonviolence."
Nguyen is a leader of Viet Tan, the International Vietnamese Reform Party, branded a terrorist organization by the government of Vietnam. It has strong support in Sacramento.
After earning his doctorate in mathematics from North Carolina State University, Nguyen became a software engineer. After moving to Elk Grove, he'd teach his sons about King and show them movies about the civil rights movement, said his wife, Ngo Mai Huong.
"I remember the King march in 2009, where we started at the Oak Park Community Center and walked through the rain to the downtown convention center," Ngo recalled. She said it wasn't the first time they'd marched in King's memory.
On that rainy Monday, he repeated King's admonition that "when we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back."
"He loved that quote," said Ngo. Though he was banned from Vietnam, "he told me many times that won't stop him. He's been doing this for 20 years. If he quit right now, his life makes no sense."
His wife recalled a poem he wrote: Between life and death, I choose life. To protect life, I choose death.
In April, he was arrested for allegedly planning to sabotage celebrations commemorating the communist victory in the Vietnam War, his wife said.
The terrorist charges were switched to subversion, and he had to stage two hunger strikes before he was finally assigned a defense attorney, said Trinh Nguyen, spokeswoman for Viet Tan in Washington, D.C. It took the government five months to issue an indictment and let him see his attorney, Trinh Nguyen said.
"He has been traveling back to Vietnam and appearing at protests quite frequently since his 2007 arrest," Trinh Nguyen said, but even his indictment accused him of promoting nonviolent protest.
The Vietnamese Embassy in Washington told The Bee it had no knowledge of Nguyen's case or his upcoming trial, which was postponed at the last minute without explanation, his wife said.
On Jan. 11, U.S. Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, Loretta A. Sanchez, D-Anaheim, Hank Johnson, D-Ga., and Gerry Connolly, D-Va., wrote David Shear, the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, asking him to take "immediate action to secure the release of Dr. Nguyen Quoc Quan."
The representatives said they were troubled to learn that "Vietnamese state media has labeled Dr. Quan as a 'terrorist' for the crime of training grass-roots activists in nonviolent advocacy, and are deeply concerned by reports that Dr. Quan is being charged with 'subversion against the state,' an offense for which punishment ranges from 12 years in prison to death."
The lawmakers added, "Dr. Quan's arrest is not an isolated event, but a symptom of the Vietnamese government's ongoing crackdown on dissent."
Human rights officials in Germany and France, along with the European Union's ambassador to Vietnam, Franz Jessen, have called on Vietnam to stop sentencing bloggers and human rights advocates to prison for exercising freedom of expression.
Trinh Nguyen said Nguyen's trial may have been postponed because the general secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong, is scheduled to meet with European Union officials this week and perhaps doesn't want to call attention to the case now.
When the trial is held, it will probably be over in one day, Trinh Nguyen said. "It's verdict and sentencing all at once. Their evidence is essentially materials that he has and he's a trainer and he's been active," she said. "There's almost no degree of burden or proof; his defense attorney has to prove he's innocent within the very narrow confines of the law.
"We're concerned because of the trend of the severity of the sentences over the last six months; one activist received up to 13 years on similar charges," Trinh Nguyen said. "The Vietnamese government is not fooling around."
In a 2008 interview with The Bee, Nguyen expressed his love for the activists in Vietnam.
"Those are the true heroes," he said. "I just follow them in my way. I hope all the Vietnamese overseas who supported me will pay attention to those willing to suffer because they'd love to have a country with freedom."