Mister President: Free Cuc, Sir!

An Orlando woman held prisoner in Vietnam raises international issues

By Jonathan Cunningham
The Orlando Weekly
October 26, 2006

Liz McCausland admits that she was living in denial.

When her mother, 58-year-old Orlando resident Thoung Nguyen “Cuc” Foshee, was arrested and jailed in September 2005 during a trip to Vietnam, McCausland thought there must have been a mistake. Foshee, a Vietnamese-born U.S. citizen, was visiting relatives and attending a wedding. She’s a landscaper with no criminal record and no known vices, the owner of a company with eight employees waiting for her return. How could her daily activities possibly have been deemed threatening enough to warrant detention by a foreign country?

Foshee was planning to stay in Vietnam no longer than three weeks; 13 months later, she’s still there. Her imprisonment has received some local media coverage, but there’s a story behind the story about how she came to be a person of interest to the Vietnamese government and landed in a jail cell in Ho Chi Minh City. Though she has yet to be charged with a crime, Foshee may be considered a terrorist by the Vietnamese government, a charge that carries a sentence from 20 years in prison to death. She has no access to an attorney and no phone privileges, and she’s being held without bail indefinitely until prosecutors decide her fate.

McCausland, a 34-year-old civil litigation attorney and Foshee’s only child, gets choked up telling the story.

“I just want my mom to come home soon,” she says, fighting back tears. “I mean if they want me to pay a bribe, I’ll pay it. She’s my mom. And she doesn’t deserve to be treated this way.”

Foshee was born in North Vietnam and moved to Orlando in 1973. She is a respected member of the Vietnamese community who helped develop the Long Van Temple, a Buddhist sanctuary in east Orange County. She has a reputation for helping new Vietnamese immigrants transition into American life.

“She helped people to first get a drivers license,” says longtime friend Vincent Thuy Nguyen. “She helped people learn how to get on the bus, and anything she could do to help Vietnamese people just starting out here, she would do it.”

Kim Tran, vice president of the University of Central Florida’s Vietnamese American Student Association, holds a similar opinion.

“She’s helped a lot of Vietnamese people that have moved here,” Tran says. “She helps find housing or jobs when people need it, that’s what she’s known for. She helped my dad find a house and gave him a job at her landscaping business when we first moved here.”

Through get-out-the-vote drives, she helped more than 2,000 people register to vote in 2004, says McCausland, and she actively campaigned for Republican candidates in the last presidential election.

Foshee was among the first Vietnamese immigrants to settle in the area, moving here with her former husband, retired Army veteran Edgar E. Foshee, almost a decade before Orlando’s Vietnamese population began to soar. She’s a community advocate at heart; it was Foshee who petitioned the city to erect a Vietnamese flag in 2002 at the corner of Colonial Drive and Mills Avenue.

So how did she end up jailed in her native country?

Foshee’s detainment stems from her involvement with a California-based pro-democracy/anti-communist group, Govern-ment of Free Vietnam (http://www.gfvn.org/). Vietnam considers GFV a terrorist organization.

Michael Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant who lives in St. Louis and is a former member of GFV, says the group has members in Europe, Australia and the United States. Although Nguyen left the organization for personal reasons after eight years, he strongly denies that GFV is linked to terrorism.

“Communist[s] say that we are terrorists, but we don’t have any weapons,” Nguyen says. “We do not allow any weapons. We just do a radio broadcast, a website, and we ask for freedom for the people of Vietnam. How does that make us a terrorist?”

GFV is openly anti-communist and takes a hard line against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

There is harsh language on their website, specifically in the “Our Program” section, which asks for Vietnamese people, both within the country and overseas, to help “eradicate all poisonous traces of Marxist-Leninism.” A call for the “immediate abolition of the present traitorous communist government” is on the website as well.

Here, such comments are protected as free speech. In Vietnam, participation in a group like GFV, even while living in the United States, makes you a threat to security.

“All she does is voice her opinion, that everyone should have equal rights,” says McCausland in a frustrated tone. “My mom is not a terrorist. She wants her relatives to be able to practice their religion freely and call us without having their phones tapped. What she’s really being punished for are the rights that she practices here in the United States.”

On the surface, it would seem that Foshee’s arrest on Sept. 8, 2005, after being in Vietnam for less than 24 hours, was an attempt by the government to rattle her cage. It’s no secret that Foshee spoke out against human-rights abuses in Vietnam. She is known for her pro-democracy work in Orlando and for advocating on behalf of freedom of religion. She’s participated in several marches on Washington, including one in June 2005 protesting a visit from Vietnam’s then-Prime Minister, Phan Van Khai. She invited GFV to host leadership conferences in Central Florida, events her family members characterize as networking and personal-development seminars rather than political rallies.

But even that may have been enough to catch the attention of the Vietnamese government. “To me, she exposed herself too much,” says Nguyen. “They have Vietnamese communist undercover in Orlando a lot. They report on the activity of the community here. Everyone recognized [Foshee’s] work. She was too active.”

Only a month prior to her arrest, both Foshee and her younger sister, Terry Ende of California, traveled through Vietnam for about 10 days without incident. They were there for a nephew’s wedding. Ende says nothing out of the ordinary happened until it was time to leave. The two sisters were traveling home separately. Foshee, who left several days later, had no problem returning home, but Ende was detained for two hours.

“Immigration knew my family inside out,” she says via telephone. “They knew where my brother lived, where my cousins lived. They knew people in my family by name, in Vietnam and the U.S. They even asked me if I was coming back next month with my sister. It was almost as if they knew what was going to happen in September.”

Prior to the trip in September, Foshee was approached by a man working for the Vietnamese government who claimed to be interested in starting a joint venture with her, says Cuc’s ex-husband, Ed Foshee, who has worked for the CIA. The two were to meet in Hanoi to solidify plans for importing landscaping machinery.

“I told her not to go on that trip,” Ed Foshee says via telephone from his home in St. Cloud. “I had a bad feeling about it, but she went anyways. And this is the result.”

Considering that the Vietnamese government granted Cuc Foshee a travel visa to enter the country, and then arrested her within 24 hours of landing in Hanoi, it’s possible that she may have been lured into a trap. But with no official arrest record, no paperwork and no charges, it’s impossible to discover what really happened.

The U.S. State Department says Foshee’s investigation was recently closed, meaning prosecutors in Vietnam must either charge her or let her go. Her family rejoiced at the news. But the investigation has been closed before, twice, and both times prosecutors have asked for the case to be reopened.

In Orlando, efforts to secure her release continue. University of Central Florida students from the Vietnamese American Student Association have taken up petition drives, family members are hitting the pavement and McCausland has reached out to U.S. government officials for help.

“This is a case that senior officials here in Washington and Hanoi are concerned about,” says Ken Bailes, of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

Republican Sen. Mel Martinez has been lobbying on Foshee’s behalf. Martinez is putting pressure on the U.S. government to halt Congressional approval of normalizing trade relations with Vietnam until Foshee is released.

“Ms. Foshee is being held in Vietnam without trial and without reason and the senator is doing all he can to get her released,” says Martinez spokesman Ken Lundberg.

But Foshee’s family wonders if she’s running out of time.

Next month, President Bush plans to visit Vietnam for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ meeting. Bush wants to strengthen trade with Vietnam before the trip. If he signs legislation to normalize trade relations with Vietnam before Foshee is released, McCausland feels the leverage for demanding her mother’s release will be lost. She also fears for the safety of other American travelers visiting the country.

“We shouldn’t trade with a country that doesn’t recognize human rights,” McCausland says. “If we open up permanent trade relations with Vietnam, other Americans can be treated this way.”
It’s ironic that the same party Foshee worked hard to support here in the United States could jeopardize her freedom in Vietnam, says Ende.

“Where are her supporters, where are those people? My sister trusts [Bush], she loves him, she’s got the whole Vietnamese community to vote for him. Now we need him to pay back the favor.”

Sign the online petition at http://www.petitionspot.com/petitions/FreeCuc to show your support for Cuc Foshee.


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