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American detained in Vietnam to face first trial

William Nguyen

William Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American citizen who was arrested by police during a demonstration in Vietnam, faces his first trial on Thursday in Hanoi. As he peacefully protested in the streets last month he was arrested on a charge of disturbing the public order. Nguyen's body flailed as he was taken into custody. 

On the morning of his trial, which is set to begin Thursday, nineteen members of Congress are pleading with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to use "all diplomatic means" to secure the 32-year-old's release. 

"As elected representative of Mr. Nguyen's family or the greater Vietnamese-American community, we remain very concerned about the seriousness of the pending charges and the sentences he faces," wrote the lawmakers. "Consistent with the mission of your department, there is no doubt the a favorable resolution to this matter will advance the national interest of the United States and its people."

Nguyen was one of thousands of people protesting a controversial proposed law that would allow long-term land leases to China. A graduate of Yale and master's degree student at the University of Singapore, he was visiting Vietnam during a break from school and was reportedly one of hundreds of people detained on the same charge of disturbing public order. In the video of his detention in Ho Chi Minh City, police officers are dragging him through the streets by his limbs while his face becomes bloody. 

When Secretary Pompeo traveled to Vietnam earlier this month, he spoke with government officials and urged them to find a "speedy resolution to his case." Over the last few weeks Nguyen's family members have spoken out asking for more help from the State Department in securing his release.

Nguyen's advocates don't know if the July 19 trial will result in his release or lead to a longer detention. He could be charged with either a civil offense or a criminal offense. A criminal conviction could put him in jail for 2-7 years, while a civil offense would just incur a fee. Those familiar with the case say that there were Vietnamese protesters who were also arrested at the same time as Nguyen, but they have already been released. Communist Vietnam has a history of both forced confessions and suppressing free speech.

Nguyen will be represented by legal counsel from Vietnam, since the country does not allow attorneys from outside the country. Earlier this month Nguyen appeared in a taped confession. 

"I understand that my acts violated the law I regret that I caused trouble for people heading to the airport," Nguyen said.

This case has struck a chord with Capitol Hill staffers who are working furiously to help secure Nguyen's release.

"There is a real human element to this case because we all deeply identify with William," said Eric Harris, communications director for Rep. Jimmy Gomez, D-Los Angeles, who represents Nguyen's district. "We are millennials, too, and believe in movements to bring change outside of our borders. Many of us have been here past 9 p.m. most nights since William was put behind bars." 

Gomez has been advocating for Nguyen's release since he was detained on June 10. He has rallied stakeholders from across Washington to get involved. The effort has been bipartisan, as demonstrated it the letter that went to Pompeo on Thursday. 

"William represents a young generation of passionate Americans who use their voices to advocate on behalf of the voiceless. Now he needs our voices – Democrats and Republicans alike – to do the same for him during this difficult time," wrote Gomez in a statement to CBS News.

In many cases where Americans are detained abroad, the work is done quietly and behind the scenes. Gomez and Nguyen's family have taken a different approach by publicizing their efforts. Nguyen's family and friends have gone to Capitol Hill to advocate for him, and now, most of his family is in, or is traveling to, Singapore so that they can be close by during his trial. 

Nguyen's friends are also stepping up. Mary Alice Daniel, a Yale classmate of Nguyen's, is among those pressing the State Department for action. "We want their efforts to match ours," she told CBS News. 

Editor's note: An earlier version of this report said that William Nguyen's trial is July 20. His trial date is July 19.