April 30, 2012
Nguyen Quoc Quan, a democracy activist, is arrested for terrorism.
Hanoi presumably is satisfied about last week’s U.S.-Vietnam naval exchange aimed at boosting security cooperation in the South China Sea. But Vietnam’s communist leaders sure have an odd way of showing it. They announced on Sunday, shortly after the naval drills concluded, that earlier in the month they had arrested an American citizen for peaceful pro-democracy activism.
Nguyen Quoc Quan—who emigrated to America in 1981, earned a doctorate at North Carolina State University and works in IT in California—was arrested on April 17 as he attempted to enter the country at Ho Chi Minh City’s airport. The government is holding him on terrorism charges. He’s a member of Viet Tan, a pro-democracy émigré political party, and appears to have been planning to meet other activists to discuss peaceful, grassroots activism.
Mr. Quan was previously arrested in 2007 when police broke up a meeting of democracy activists and charged them—the group included another American, as well as a French citizen, a Thai and several Vietnamese—with terrorism-related crimes. They were caught with pamphlets about nonviolent resistance.
Mr. Quan was deported after a show trial in 2008, but it says something about his determination to create a better Vietnam that he has since returned several times, despite the obvious dangers. Why the authorities chose to arrest him this time remains a mystery.
Washington should keep Mr. Quan’s case, and others, in mind as officials plan the next stages in U.S.-Vietnam cooperation. Hanoi has taken to arresting American citizens for "crimes" that aren’t crimes in any normal country. This will complicate efforts to build political support for a deeper alliance. Mr. Quan’s last arrest, in 2007, caught the attention of members of Congress who wrote to then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in protest. A repeat becomes more likely the longer Mr. Quan’s case drags on.
Southeast Asian terrorism is a significant U.S. concern, yet Vietnam holds a radically different definition of "terrorism" that encompasses peaceful political activity. While Hanoi describes Viet Tan as a terrorist organization, Washington recognizes it as a political party. It is not on any American watchlist and operates openly in America. Mr. Quan has enjoyed consular support from U.S. officials in Vietnam.
Hanoi has shown in the past that it responds to U.S. pressure on human rights. It remains the only country to have negotiated a settlement to improve religious liberty in exchange for being taken off the State Department’s list of Countries of Particular Concern for religious freedom violations. After the U.S. objected to the long delay before American officials were notified of Mr. Quan’s 2007 arrest, Hanoi appears to have alerted the consulate much sooner this time.
Washington shouldn’t be shy about expecting Hanoi to improve its rights record as a condition of the closer strategic cooperation that Vietnam’s government holds dear.
Source: Wall Street Journal