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Hanoi’s Most Wanted

2 minute read
Kay Johnson

Many countries would crow about the arrest of their most wanted terrorist, but that hasn’t been the case with Vietnam’s Nguyen Huu Chanh. The former refugee and onetime leader of the California-based Government of Free Vietnam was reportedly detained in South Korea on April 5. Yet it was nearly a week before the news was made publicand then only by Chanh’s U.S. supporters, who accuse Seoul of bowing to pressure from Hanoi to seize a man they say is a prominent pro-democracy activist. Last week, some 200 Vietnamese-Americans marched on the South Korean consulate in Los Angeles to present a petition calling for Chanh’s release. “He has devoted his life to promoting democracy, human rights and justice for his homeland,” says Daingu Nguyen, spokesman for the recently launched website FreeChanhNguyen.com.

Hanoi doesn’t see Chanh in quite the same light. The government accuses him of masterminding a failed 1999 plot to blow up Vietnamese monuments and of ordering the 2001 bombing of its embassy in Phnom Penh, as well as other attempted attacks both in Cambodia and Thailand. In a 2001 interview with TIME, Chanh boasted of his involvement in the 1999 plot; he added that his operatives in Vietnam were planning more bombings to destabilize the government and that he “control[led] the codes” for the explosives. The Vietnamese government has declined to say whether it is seeking Chanh’s extradition, but supporters fear that Hanoi is pushing for him to be returned for trial; a South Korean embassy official told TIME that Seoul is awaiting proof of Vietnam’s accusations before it considers handing him over.

Chanh’s adopted country, the U.S., has so far declined to comment. Though he’s lived in California since 1982, he’s not a U.S. citizen and has no official protection. And while Washington once tacitly supported anti-Communist outfits like Free Vietnam, the group’s past acts of sabotage became an embarrassment in the post-9/11 era. Chanh left the movement last year to head the United States International Mission, a nonprofit organization that helps victims of human trafficking. But if South Korea decides to extradite him, his past may land him in a Vietnamese jail.

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