Before her husband left Garden Grove for Vietnam, he reassured her that if authorities stopped him for his activism, he would be sent home, not to jail. Her two grown children heard the same comforting words.
“Now the kids keep asking, ‘Why isn’t he home?’” Mai Huong Ngo said.
Nguyen Quoc Quan was arrested a month ago upon arriving in Ho Chi Minh City, reportedly charged with terrorist acts linked to Viet Tan, a banned political party pushing for democracy in the communist country.
The group says the charges are fabricated and has rallied U.S. lawmakers to push for his release, arguing that Vietnam is punishing a peaceful dissident. Human rights groups have frequently condemned Vietnam for jailing activists and bloggers for expressing their beliefs.
Quan, a software engineer and former high school instructor, teaches classes on peaceful tactics and leadership to fellow human rights activists, his wife said. A U.S. citizen who left his native Vietnam by boat in the '80s, he was jailed in Vietnam once before, five years ago, and sentenced to six months behind bars on other "terrorism" charges tied to leaflets advocating nonviolent struggle.
Five years ago when he was jailed, he had told Ngo he was going to Thailand, not Vietnam. He had promised her he wouldn’t go to Vietnam again after she begged him not to, fearful because Vietnamese newspapers had labeled him as a terrorist after he had talked to other democracy activists.
This time, he called from the airport in Vietnam, exhausted, and said he would call again from his hotel.
Ngo waited. “I thought, he’s tired, maybe he forgot.” She kept waiting.
When she finally called the U.S. Consulate two days later, she discovered he had been arrested. Vietnamese news media said he would be detained four months while prosecutors investigated the terrorism charges against him.
Since then, she has scraped for news of him. U.S. Consulate officials have visited him twice in jail, most recently on Monday. They passed along his words: Don't worry. Tell the kids to study hard. Take care of your mother.
This month she went to Washington to testify on human rights abuses in Vietnam, recounting her husband's story as well as those of other jailed activists. "The Vietnamese communist government disgraces the honorable work of these brave activists and shutters them away into silence. But we cannot allow this injustice," she told a House committee.
Ngo reminds herself what he told her, that she is always with him, even in jail. He asked her to think the same thing. And despite the hazards, Ngo says, she doesn't begrudge him his human rights work.
"This is why I married him," she said.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: This undated picture taken by the Vietnam News Agency shows activist Nguyen Quoc Quan, a U.S. citizen of Vietnamese origin, being detained in Ho Chi Minh City. Credit: Vietnam News Agency