An American citizen is set to stand trial on charges of “disturbing public order” in Vietnam on Friday.
William Anh Nguyen, a 32-year-old Houston native, was arrested during large-scale protests in Ho Chi Minh City on 10 June.
The demonstrations, which took place in cities throughout the country, were spurred by a proposed law on special economic zones that many feared would allow Chinese companies to control large swathes of land in Vietnam.
Nguyen, who stopped in Ho Chi Minh City on his way to Singapore to obtain a master’s degree from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, arrived at a march on the main road leading to the city’s airport. Later that afternoon, video emerged of him being dragged on to a police truck with a bloody wound on his head.
His only public appearance in the weeks since was a confession aired on national TV on 18 June. Last week, formal charges were filed against Nguyen, and the Vietnamese government announced that he would go to trial on 20 July.
Vi Tran, a lawyer based in Taiwan who focuses on human rights in Vietnam, said the charges so far filed against Nguyen could see him fined or facing community service or a jail term of up to two years.
On 12 July, six Vietnamese nationals received sentences of 18 months to two years under charges of disturbing public order for their actions during protests in Binh Thaun province, on the south-central coast.
However, Tran said prosecutors planned to charge Nguyen under a separate provision, claiming that he was “inciting others to be violent and disruptive”.
According to Tran, this can carry a prison sentence of up to seven years.
Officials from the US consulate in Ho Chi Minh City, as well as Nguyen’s Vietnamese lawyers, have been able to meet with him as the trial nears. A US state department official said in an email that the consulate was in daily contact with Nguyen’s family, while a consular official will be present at the trial on Friday.
Vietnam’s ministry of foreign affairs did not respond to a request for comment. The acting US consul general, Hale VanKoughnett, declined to comment.
Victoria Nguyen, William’s sister and the driving force behind a social media campaign called Free Will Nguyen, said in a text message that members of the consulate had met with him three times. Victoria attended Nguyen’s graduation ceremony in Singapore on 14 July in his stead, and she intends to be at the trial.
“My mom was granted 30 minutes with him as soon as she touched down on the 17th,” Victoria said. “He lost 6lbs, and has been moved to a larger cell with 13 people … He couldn’t sleep well on the hard surface but he said the cellmates are very kind to him.”
Tran said it was hard to predict if prosecutors would be lenient towards Nguyen. “I am not sure if they will sentence him too harsh[ly] because of the diplomatic relationship between the US and Vietnam, but it’s very difficult to assess the sentence to be handed out,” she shared.
Ties between the US and Vietnam have warmed considerably in recent years, with Barack Obama visiting in 2016 and Donald Trump stopping in Hanoi last November.
Last week, the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, conducted a two-day visit to Hanoi for meetings with Vietnam’s leadership. Nguyen’s family had hoped that this would result in his release, but Pompeo made no public comments on the matter.
When asked about the reluctance of American officials to publicly address Nguyen’s detention, Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington who specializes in south-east Asian political and security issues, said: “The simple answer is that the administration has very little interest in human rights. It is a non-priority for them.”
While he acknowledged the improved ties between Vietnam and the US and the impact this may have on the trial, Tran also believed the court could try to make an example out of Nguyen. “It seems to me that they are trying to be clear with Will and any other Vietnamese American that they would sentence dissidents harshly regardless of their nationality,” she said.