The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘No sense of urgency’: State Dept. slow to help American beaten and held in Vietnam, family says

William Nguyen, blood streaming from his head as he is dragged by plainclothes police through a throng of protesters on a Ho Chi Minh City street, does not have any shoes.

Each of three officers is holding a limb of the American student, according to one video of the incident on June 10, skipping him on the pavement like a stone on the surface of a lake. His possessions fly off his body.

Then the orange bag goes over his head.

That was the last time Nguyen was publicly seen, igniting calls from four U.S. lawmakers to demand his release after Vietnam's communist government detained him on accusations of disturbing public order during protests against renting land to China.

Friends and family of Nguyen say the U.S. State Department has not moved quickly enough to secure Nguyen's freedom in what could be months-long confinement without access to legal representation.

“There is no sense of urgency among [the State Department]. They don’t work together,” Nguyen's sister Victoria Nguyen told The Washington Post on Monday, referring to the parallel efforts by Congress and the State Department.

In a Friday meeting with Nguyen's family, State Department officials said William Nguyen’s confinement is a top priority and that a consular officer had visited him the same day. Nguyen was in good health and said he did not need medical attention, a State Department official said Tuesday.

Victoria Nguyen said officials did not provide clear guidance on what was being done to ensure her brother's return.

That message contrasted with a trio of House Democrats from California, who are calling on the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, Dan Kritenbrink, to bring William Nguyen home.

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“Our expectation is that the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam and the U.S. government do whatever it can — at the highest levels — to obtain this release,” Reps. Alan Lowenthal, Jimmy Gomez and Lou Correa said in a joint statement Friday.

The lawmakers said the next step would be to contact President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to resolve the issue.

In a tweet on Saturday, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) also called on the Vietnamese government to release Nguyen.

On Tuesday, the Agence France-Presse reported that Nguyen confessed on state-controlled television.

“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, according to the report. Vietnamese authorities have been accused by human-rights groups of extracting forced public confessions, the AFP reported.

William and Victoria’s mother, Vicky, fled Saigon four years after Vietnamese communist forces captured the city in 1975 and settled in Houston, Victoria Nguyen said. Their fraught family history inspired William Nguyen to study Vietnam at Yale University and to visit the country numerous times.

He stopped in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, in June on his way to the National University of Singapore for his graduation from a master's degree program next month, his sister said, and he joined the protests to be a part of rare moment of public assembly.

Denying accusations fueled by state-operated media that Nguyen deliberately incited protesters, his friend Mary-Alice Daniel told The Post that Nguyen is committed and peaceful. Hundreds of protesters were detained in the crackdown, Human Rights Watch said.

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State Department officials declined to address questions about its efforts in Nguyen’s case. In a statement, the department said it was “deeply concerned” about reports of Nguyen’s injury and detention, but the statement did not call on the Vietnamese government to release him.

“We will continue to push for continued and regular access by consular officers to Mr. Nguyen, in the interest of ensuring due process and fair treatment,” the State Department said, adding the United States routinely raises human rights abuse concerns at all levels, including during Trump’s visit to the country last November.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders did not comment regarding questions over Trump’s interest in Nguyen’s case or whether he has sought a direct role in diplomatic efforts.

Both Victoria Nguyen and Daniel are in Washington to meet with lawmakers and take media requests. Friends and family have set up a Twitter account, with a #freewilly hashtag, to put additional pressure on lawmakers and the Trump administration to act.

“It’s dawning on me that we’re going to have to work through other avenues,” Daniel said.

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