Nguyen Quoc Quan is happy to taste freedom after nine months in a Vietnamese prison. But the pro-democracy activist from Elk Grove vows he won't rest until the citizens of communist Vietnam can speak freely.
"For now, I will fight from here. If I have to go back to Vietnam, I will," he said Thursday.
Nguyen was reunited with his family Wednesday night in Los Angeles after the Vietnamese government deported him, claiming he had confessed to Article 79, "activities aimed at overthrowing the people's administration."
A champion of nonviolent struggle in the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Nguyen denies he was trying to overthrow the government. He said his three hunger strikes in prison and release without trial reflect the power of peaceful protest.
Five years ago, Nguyen was arrested in Vietnam for trying to distribute 7,000 pro-democracy fliers. He spent six months in prison, was convicted and was deported in 2008.
How did you learn about Gandhi and King?
I was about 12 years old in Vietnam when my stepfather told me about them and what they tried to do. When I came to America from Vietnam in 1990, a lot of countries had turned from dictatorship to democracy based on the beliefs of King and Gandhi. So I read more and thought maybe this would be a peaceful solution for Vietnam.
When my wife and I march in Sacramento on Martin Luther King Day, I feel the joy of people power. I had it in my mind that I had to go back to Vietnam, using them as a model.
Why go back after you already were jailed there?
After my trial I went directly to the judge and asked him when I could come back, and he said in one or two years just write a letter and he will decide.
So in 2010, I legally changed my name to Richard Nguyen, after my mathematics professor in North Carolina, Richard Chandler.
With my new U.S. passport, I went to Vietnam in 2011 for six weeks, to research how to make people become good citizens in a democratic environment. In April 2012, I returned.
I knew what I was doing wasn't against the law, but I also knew I'd be arrested. I planned to become a witness against arbitrary detention.
I landed at 11 a.m., was arrested before noon and was asked if I'm Quan Nguyen. I said "yes" and they drove me directly to jail.
What did you do in prison?
They served me the same food as before a bowl of rice, some watery soup with a few vegetables and a small piece of fish or meat. But I could survive.
I'd do 150 pushups a day. Then I went on a hunger strike and demanded three things: I wanted the books my wife gave the U.S. Consulate to give me. Second, I wanted my documents and some books I'd brought from the U.S. Third, I had to see my lawyers because the investigation was over. I had one official lawyer. I requested two others who also had gone to jail because of their opinions. The law says I'm entitled to a lawyer I trust, but they didn't let me see anybody.
Did the hunger strikes work?
I wrote a letter to the chief of the jail telling him my legal rights and what I planned to do. In October, I only drank water and on the fourth day they returned the books from the consulate.
Then I started a second hunger strike for 12 days. On the third day they returned my books and papers, but I still didn't eat.
On the 12th day I filed a legal complaint with the court asking why they didn't provide me with a lawyer. They had 15 days to answer, and when they didn't I started a third hunger strike on my birthday. This time I didn't eat or drink for eight days and almost gave up. I thought I'd wind up in the hospital. Luckily, on the eighth day I finally met my lawyer.
What did you hope to prove?
I planned to be an example, to show the court and tell the judge that I didn't plan to overthrow anything, but to make the argument that nonviolent struggle is a good way to make things right for the people of every country. They set my trial for Jan. 22, then said they postponed it because the three witnesses against me were on trial in Hanoi. They were among 17 people I was going to train as future leaders.
I wouldn't confess to subversion. I did sign a letter saying I wanted to be with my family and friends and they let me out Jan. 30. I know the U.S. government put on a lot of pressure and Vietnamese all over the world talked about it. That gave me strength.
Does your release signal a new day for Vietnam?
I hope it's a sign that something is changing, that unfair trials should be reconsidered. When Vietnamese citizens do the same thing I did, Vietnamese law treats them differently. It is very wrong when one person's released for the same action (and) someone (else) has to spend 12 or 13 years in jail.
How did you survive in jail?
I thought a lot about my wife. When you get married, you think you have to relinquish your freedom but with my wife, I have freedom to go to jail. She understands me. She knows my dream.
We feel we gain a lot when we choose to lose. I chose to give up freedom to have more freedom. I never think of myself a a hero. I always act as a regular person who wants to do the right thing by my actions.
I love democracy and freedom a lot because I live in America. I didn't understand much before I came here. Now I want to pay it back. If I can do that, I feel like I am alive.