Blood streaming down his face, he was dragged away across the pavement by plainclothes police before being thrown in the bed of a truck, having an orange bag pulled down over his head, and driven away to whereabouts unknown.
That was the last public sighting of William Anh Nguyen.
On Sunday, June 10, ahead of his July graduation from a master’s program in Public Policy at the Lee Kuan Yew School in Singapore, Vietnamese-American Will Nguyen visited Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam for a much needed break. During that time, he attended a peaceful demonstration taking place against proposed special economic zones that would allow foreign investors to lease and profit off of Vietnamese land for 99 years, which many in the country fear would unfairly favor Chinese companies.
Unprecedented numbers of protestors in Saigon pic.twitter.com/rjlmltnMxH
— Will Nguyen (阮英惟） (@will_nguyen_) June 10, 2018
“He was planning to move back to Vietnam, a country he loves so much,” says Mary-Alice Daniel, a close friend of Nguyen’s from their days in undergrad at Yale University. Daniel, along with Nguyen’s sister, is currently in Washington, D.C., meeting with Congressmen and other government officials to secure Nguyen’s safe return home.
Daniel explains that the close friendship between her and Nguyen stems from sharing a cultural perspective as first- and second-generation immigrants. “Will attended these protests because he was excited to see Vietnamese people peacefully expressing their views to their government. His [tweets] refer to a ‘historic’ moment. He had no particular political motivation or agenda. For him, this was about witnessing and experiencing Vietnamese civic participation.”
The tweets Daniel mentions document thousands of Vietnamese protesters marching throughout the city.
“I can’t stress how enormous of an achievement this is for the Vietnamese people,” he wrote. “The communist government is allowing people to assemble peacefully and the people are exercising their civic duty to protest injustice.” However, subsequent commentary turned more grim, with one image he shared showing a protester who had been struck by police officers lying in the street.
Soon thereafter, Nguyen’s tweets stopped altogether. Before long, photos and videos began circulating on Facebook of Nguyen being beaten over the head by police, dragged into a police truck, and driven away. He’s accused of “disturbing the social order,” according to state news reports.
When INTO asked what was known of Nguyen’s current condition, Daniel said, “We have not had any contact with him.” Through her meetings with U.S. State Department officials, she has learned that only after six days of being held in custody was Nguyen able to have a consular visit with Embassy officials, who relayed some information secondhand. Daniel is quick to add: “He still has not received medical attention. … A head injury with no medical follow-up is alarming.”
When questioned about a Facebook post Daniel shared after her friend’s initial detainment—in which she stated that Nguyen would be released quickly and without much fuss—she clarifies by detailing how Vietnamese police extorted money from an acquaintance of Nguyen’s, with the promise he would be able to go home.
“A fine was paid on his behalf by a Vietnamese local, who was told that would be the end of it and [Nguyen] would be released within an hour,” she claims. “That turned out to be untrue.”
Official charges still have not been brought against Nguyen after 10 days in custody, but he is being investigated. According to Daniel, Vietnamese officials “have not shared evidence” of any crime having been committed, adding that Nguyen’s Airbnb host reported that police “entered his property on a warrant and confiscated clothes, passport, and a laptop.” She was quick to note that Nguyen “does not have legal representation at this point and has not been given access to legal aid.”
Nguyen, however, broke the unofficial crime of capturing and sharing proof of police brutality, the penalty of which can be scarier than the thought of facing jail time. A notable example came after the very public and violent arrest in Baltimore of Freddie Gray, whose death was a direct result of police violence. Gray’s friend, Kevin Moore, filmed the video that would go on to be shown by media outlets as well as in court.
In an interview with Vice, Moore recounts that after the incident, like Nguyen, he became a target of the same police he caught on tape abusing their positions of power.
“Those cops used to hang out outside my job, at my kid’s school, in front of the house, they’d hold their phone cameras up when I’d pass by,” he explained.
Those responsible for additional high-profile videos of police killings in the U.S.—such as in the deaths of Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Philando Castile, and Alton Sterling—have also been vocal about the retaliation they experienced after documenting and publicizing police misconduct.
Three Democratic members of Congress from California, Alan Lowenthal, Jimmy Gomez and Lou Correa, have urged the Vietnamese government to free Nguyen. They also called on President Trump to help secure his release. “William must be released and he must be released immediately,” the representatives said in a statement. “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.”
That being said, Nguyen’s sister Victoria told the Washington Post that officials have not provided clear guidance on what is being done to ensure her brother’s return. That statement was followed only hours later by state television footage of Nguyen’s unconvincing admission of guilt. “I blocked traffic and caused trouble to my family and friends,” continuing: “I will not join any anti-state activities anymore.”
The Vietnamese authorities are known to coerce detainees into making such public confessions. They are aided by a criminal-procedure code that encourages law-enforcement to use harsh interrogation tactics, paired with loosely defined penal codes that allow easy prosecution of unsubstantiated crimes, like Nguyen’s “disturbing the social order.”
It also doesn’t hurt that Vietnamese press is heavily censored by the Communist Party of Vietnam, with most official media outlets and news publications being owned by the government. While news relating to activities such as political dissidents, corruption of government officials, anti-China sentiments, human rights issues, and any criticism of government goes unreported, arrests of American citizens are widely broadcast.
Two weeks ago, Nguyen was riding a wave of excitement, having just published his first academic article on Vietnamese socio-economic issues. He was looking forward to graduation and to being able to use his degree in a way that would allow him to contribute to the goodwill of a community of which he was proud to be a part.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to better protect parties involved in this incident as the situation continues to unfold.