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Exile is not freedom

Published May 10, 2004

In an international environment where we constantly hope for freedom, those who are imprisoned for the cause of human rights are a perpetually endangered species. Repressive governments know their voices are dangerously influential. Unable to execute these activists because of international pressure, they use prisons as punishment or offer exile as a way to be rid of the embarrassing disturbance. Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, who has been repeatedly imprisoned for more than 20 years in his quest for a peaceful evolution to democracy in Vietnam, is one of those rare activists who have refused exile and opted instead for a life of extreme hardship. In Dr. Que's own words, "Exile is not freedom."

Dr. Que's father, an anti-French, anti-Communist nationalist, was assassinated in 1945, when Dr. Que himself was 3 years old. The family later fled to South Vietnam, where Dr. Que studied medicine and graduated from Saigon Medical School. A short time later, he was awarded a scholarship by the World Health Organization to further his studies in Belgium, France and England. In 1974, he returned to Vietnam.

When Saigon fell into Communist hands in 1975, Dr. Que refused to leave Vietnam with the rest of his family, deciding instead to stay and help rebuild a country shattered by decades of war. He founded the National Progressive Front, a peaceful organization that questioned many of the government's policies, especially its violations of basic human rights.
Because of his efforts, Dr. Que was imprisoned in 1978, remaining in "detention" for 10 years without either formal charges or a trial. During that time, he was tortured, beaten and put into solitary confinement in chains. He also spent two months in a five-foot by six-foot cell without sanitary facilities. After persistent protests by human-rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch Asia, Dr. Que was finally released in 1988.
Undaunted, in May 1990 Dr. Que founded the Non-Violent Movement for Human Rights, issuing a manifesto that appealed for international support of his nonviolent struggle to establish human rights for all Vietnamese. He was arrested one month later and again imprisoned without a trial. In November 1991, Dr. Que was brought to trial on very short notice by the Vietnamese government on charges of trying to overthrow the regime. Within days, Congress passed the Joint Resolution S.J. 78, which demandedhisrelease. However, in a brief trial, without witnesses or legal representation, Dr. Que was sentenced to 20 years of hard labor and five years of house arrest.

Members of Congress, State Department officials and labor and church leaders have all appealed to the government of Vietnam for his release. The Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights presented Dr. Que with its prestigious Human Rights Award. Respected organizations such as the AFL-CIO, Amnesty International, Asia Watch, the American Medical Association, Reporters without Frontiers and the Physicians for Human Rights have called for his release.

In August 1998, after further international pressure, Dr. Que finally was released from prison. His health had suffered considerably. Dr. Que refused an offer of exile and instead chose to stay in Vietnam to continue his nonviolent struggle for democracy and the rights of the individual. In March 2003, within days of his criticism of the Communist government for its persistent suppression of free speech and the freedom of information, Dr. Que was arrested for the third time. Charged with espionage, he has been held incommunicado. The government as yet has not even set a trial date and has deprived Dr. Que of all legal representation. His increasingly poor health is of great concern to the international community. Again, the Vietnamese government continues to pressure him to leave Vietnam in exchange for his immediate release, but again Dr. Que has refused.

Recently, Dr. Torsten Wiesel, a Nobel laureate in medicine and chairman of the Human Rights Committee of the National Academies of the Sciences, joined 11 other Nobel laureates around the world in attempting to intervene on Dr. Que's behalf, sending letters to Vietnamese authorities and Secretary of State Colin Powell asking for Dr. Que's release.

I believe that Dr. Que, while having chosen the extremely difficult path of remaining inside Vietnam rather than leaving his homeland for a better life, is both courageous and correct. I have joined several of my colleagues from both parties in nominating Dr. Nguyen Dan Que of Vietnam for the Nobel Peace Prize this year.

In honor of this champion of human rights, Congress in May 1994 established Vietnam Human Rights Day on May 11, the date that Dr. Que issued his manifesto calling for a nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights in Vietnam. As we have every year since 1994, we will again commemorate Vietnam Human Rights Day this May at the Capitol. I call on all Americans who love freedom and democracy to join us.

Sen. George Allen is a Republican from Virginia.

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