When Senator McCain signs a letter along with Vin Weber, who is a top policy adviser to Mr. McCain's rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Mitt Romney, it is worth paying attention to, especially when the letter is also signed by President Clinton's secretary of state, Madeleine Albright. The letter, addressed to the "president" of Vietnam, calls for the release by Vietnamese authorities of a 35-year-old lawyer, Le Quoc Quan, who was arrested March 8, shortly after he returned to his country from a five-month fellowship in Washington at the National Endowment for Democracy.
Messrs. McCain and Weber and Ms. Albright write that they are "shocked and outraged" by the lawyer's arrest. They warn that his detention casts a "dark cloud" over "the image of Vietnam and the prospects for improved ties between our countries." The American ambassador in Vietnam, Michael Marine, earlier this month circulated an opinion article that listed Le Quoc Quan as among "an increasing number of individuals in prison or under detention in Vietnam whose only crime was the peaceful expression of their views."
The ambassador wrote that the Vietnamese government "must release these and other individuals now. It must also take steps to revise or repeal laws so that the peaceful expression of one's views — even if they are critical of the state — is no longer illegal." The president of the National Endowment for Democracy, Carl Gershman, said in a statement, "It is a deep insult to the United States that the Vietnamese regime would harass someone in this way who has just participated in a citizen exchange program supported by the US Congress and Department of State."
A blog devoted to the case, freelequocquan.blogspot.com, carries an arrest notice for Le Quoc Quan that describes his crime as "‘Participation in activities to overthrow the People's government' as stated in Article 79 of The Criminal Code of the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam." The notice says that he is being held at detention camp B14 of the Ministry of Public Security. The NED is urging concerned individuals to register their protests with the embassy of Vietnam in Washington, whose phone number is (202) 861-0737. President Bush honored Vietnam with a visit there in November. If this is how the communists return the favor, it will cause a lot of Americans to rethink the normalization of our relations with the country.
More broadly, at a time when Democrats and even some Republicans are agitating for a hasty retreat from Iraq, the arrest in Vietnam underscores the long-lasting consequences of American retreat. Thirty-two years after the fall of Saigon, the communist regime in Vietnam is jailing individuals for being associated with the idea of democracy. Do we really want to be reading in 2039 about the jailing of a young democracy advocate in Iraq?