His wife doesn’t deny that Quan wants to change Vietnam’s political system.
‘‘He wanted to talk to the young people and bring up the idea of democracy in Vietnam,’’ Huong Mai Ngo, said in an interview with The Associated Press by phone from Sacramento. ‘‘He has lived in the U.S., he has had freedom here and he wants them to have the same.’’
Congress members with large Vietnamese-American constituencies are pressuring the Obama administration.
Rep. Frank Wolf, a leading critic, maintains the government has neglected human rights as it looks to forge economic and security ties. With three Republican colleagues, the Virginia congressman has demanded the sacking of U.S. Ambassador David Shear, accusing him of failing to invite democracy and rights activists to the July 4 celebration at the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi after giving assurances he would.
‘‘The administration’s approach has been a disaster. All they care about are economic and defense issues,’’ said Wolf, who also took aim at Shear for failing to visit Quan in prison. ‘‘Human rights and religious freedom should be the number one priority.’’
U.S. officials have visited Quan five times in jail, mostly recently in late September.
‘‘We believe no one should be imprisoned for peacefully expressing their political views or their aspirations for a freer, more democratic and prosperous future,’’ embassy spokesman Christopher Hodges said. ‘‘We continue to call on the government of Vietnam to quickly and transparently resolve this case.’’
Wolf and other lawmakers interested in Vietnam do not have much say in setting policy, but can make life awkward for the Obama administration. Wolf hinted that he could propose amendments to budget legislation to put more pressure on the administration over its Vietnam policy. Wolf is a senior member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, which oversees much of the federal budget.
The U.S. has some leverage if it wishes to try and get Vietnam to improve its human rights record: Vietnam is one of the largest recipients of American aid in Asia and is currently negotiating a free trade deal with Washington and seven other countries.
The Vietnamese government declined to comment on the charges against Quan, but Hanoi is aware of U.S. sensitivities in this case. Many observers say Quan is likely to be convicted but sentenced to time served and quickly expelled, though even that is likely to raise congressional pressure on the White House to tie the trade deal and aid to progress on human rights.
‘‘It would be a disaster for Vietnam if they come down on U.S. citizen with an extreme sentence for peacefully advocating human rights,’’ said Linda Malone, a professor at William and Mary Law School who is advising Quan’s local counsel on his defense. ‘‘They will lose tremendous ground on what they seek to advance themselves.’’
Matthew Pennington reported from Washington.