A well-known Vietnamese human rights lawyer and his family have arrived in the United States a year after they were stopped by police from boarding a flight to New York.
Vo An Don landed at Washington’s Dulles International Airport on Thursday with his wife and three children. He told Radio Free Asia that they were able to leave Vietnam without any obstacles.
“Arriving in a country of freedom made me very happy,” he said. “Everything went very well as the International Organization for Migration supported and created favorable conditions for us.”
Don represented defendants in high-profile, politically sensitive cases, including blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, also known as Mother Mushroom, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison in June 2017 for “spreading propaganda against the state.”
Last year, he told RFA that he and his family had decided to seek asylum in the United States because they were suffering harassment by authorities in his home province of Phu Yen and economic hardship since he could no longer work as a lawyer.
The Washington-based International Organization for Migration secured funding for the family’s airfare, but authorities at Tan Son Nhat Airport in Ho Chi Minh City wouldn’t allow them to board their flight in September 2022.
Airport police told him he would need to contact immigration authorities in Phu Yen for an explanation of why he was barred from traveling overseas.
U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit last month to Hanoi paved the way for police to allow him to travel, Don posted on Facebook. Just before Biden arrived, police advised Don that the exit ban on him and his family had been lifted, he wrote.
“The truth is they wanted me to stay in Vietnam as a hostage for negotiations with the U.S. until they got what they wanted,” he wrote. “Then they let me go as a human rights gift.”
‘Traded like a type of good’
A decade ago, Don represented the wife of a criminal suspect who was beaten to death by police in 2012. He also defended four Vietnamese citizens who were jailed in 2017 after sailing to Australia in search of work.
In 2017, he was stripped of his license to practice law after he posted a comment on Facebook that said lawyers in Vietnam regularly use payoffs to win cases for their clients.
On Thursday, Don and his family flew to Charlotte, North Carolina, after arriving at Dulles. They were scheduled to board another flight to Fayetteville, Arkansas, their final destination.
On Facebook, Don cited Vietnam’s Constitution, which says “citizens have the right to freedom of movement and residence inside and outside the country without any obstruction.”
Instead, authorities treat people in Vietnam “like dirt,” he wrote.
“They’re bullied and oppressed, and when they want to leave the country, they are traded like a type of good,” he wrote. “I am a human, not a pet for them to give visitors as a gift.”
Translated by Anna Vu. Edited by Matt Reed.