Mike Pompeo, U.S. secretary of state, speaks during a news conference in Singapore. (Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg)

Fate of Jailed American Hangs Over Pompeo's Visit to Vietnam

(Bloomberg) -- The fate of an American arrested almost a month ago during a rare protest in Vietnam is likely to be raised by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after he touches down Sunday in Hanoi to meet leaders of the communist government.

Houston native William Nguyen was detained June 10 during a Ho Chi Minh City protest against proposed special economic zones that Vietnamese fear will lead to Chinese encroachment and cybersecurity legislation they believe will curb online freedoms. In a police video broadcast on state television last month, Nguyen acknowledged that he violated Vietnamese law and expressed “regret” for disrupting traffic and promised not to participate in activities against the government.

The Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs didn’t respond to a request for comment Friday.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons, China’s military muscle-flexing in the region and closer U.S.-Vietnam relations were expected to be the main discussions between Pompeo and Vietnamese leaders including Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc. But political pressure from U.S. lawmakers calling for his release could prompt Pompeo to raise the detainment of Nguyen.

“It may not be the No. 1 item and you never know how forcefully it will be raised, but Pompeo has to raise it,” said Carlyle Thayer, an emeritus professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra. “The Vietnamese-American community have friends in Congress. And the State Department seems to be raising these types of issues higher than it did under Rex Tillerson.”

The recent protests highlight simmering political discontent in the Southeast Asian nation, despite having one of the world’s fastest growing economies. Besides longstanding wariness of Chinese influence, protesters are also opposed to a new cybersecurity that bans internet users from organizing and requires companies such as Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google to store data locally.

Nguyen was accused of urging demonstrators to climb over roadblocks while standing on a police vehicle on June 10, a day after arriving in Vietnam as a tourist. A video of his arrest depicts a bloodied Nguyen being dragged away and beaten. He was charged with causing public disorder.

U.S. consular officers have met with Nguyen, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told a press briefing in June. “We’re deeply concerned by videos that show injuries, and the initial treatment of him,” she said. “We’ve made those concerns known to the Vietnamese authorities.”

Nguyen is a student at National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and is expected to receive a master’s degree on July 14, according to his sister, Victoria Nguyen. “I can only hope that Pompeo makes it a possibility for William to receive his degree in person,” she said.

Vietnam’s leaders, who are trying to strengthen economic ties with the U.S. amid a fear of a global trade war, would most likely be receptive to Nguyen’s release, Thayer said. “Getting that television confession gives the Vietnamese that pound of flesh -- without the blood,” he said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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