A Vietnamese government-controlled newspaper, Thanh Nien, painted American diplomat Christian Marchant as the aggressor in a Jan. 5 incident in the city of Hue in which the U.S. government said Marchant was injured.

Marchant, a 1992 graduate of Model Laboratory School, and the son of Richmond residents Dr. Marlow and Kristy Marchant, is the chief political officer for the U.S. embassy in Hanoi.

According to an English translation of the newspaper provided to the Register by a Vietnamese American, and the news website, Bloomberg.com, “a foreign man” carrying a briefcase and claiming to be a U.S. diplomat shouted “some very obscene words” in both English and Vietnamese as he approached the group home where some retired and convalescent Catholic priests live.

Marchant is well known to Vietnamese authorities, he said in a recent Richmond Register interview, because he has traveled extensively around the Southeast Asian nation to visit the families of imprisoned political dissidents and Roman Catholic Church officials who have had disputes with their government.

In fact, the Vietnamese government had repeatedly warned him to cease such visits, Marchant said, but he has ignored them.

Marchant was interviewed by the Register after the U.S. State Department announced that he would share its Human Rights and Democracy award for his efforts on behalf of political dissidents and religious freedom in Vietnam.

The Vietnamese newspaper reported that a Vietnamese foreign ministry “gently confronted” Marchant as he approached the home where Father Nguyen Van Ly lives under house arrest after being sentenced to eight years in prison in 2007 for illegal political activities. Ly was released to house arrest in March 2010 for medical reasons.

Marchant “pushed the (foreign ministry) official to the ground, and then he punched” a bystander in the face, the Thanh Nien report stated. After a scuffle with several other bystanders, whom the newspaper said were upset by Marchant’s actions, the U.S. diplomat was escorted to a foreign ministry office in Hue, from which he left “voluntarily” and returned to Hanoi after being told that “even diplomats” have to abide by a host country’s laws.

The account by a government-controlled newspaper only intensified the war of words between the two governments, the Bloomberg.com story stated.

Father Ly gave a quite different account of the incident to Radio Free Asia, an American-funded network.

He said the 20 or so police officers normally stationed around the home prevented Marchant from entering, wrestling him to the ground as he attempted to pass by them.

The diplomat then was forced into a police vehicle, the priest said. Then, with his legs not fully inside the vehicle, the police slammed the car door “repeatedly” on them.

In the State Department’s daily press briefing Thursday, Mark C. Toner, acting deputy spokesperson, gave few details of the incident, over which he said U.S. officials have lodged “strong protests,” both with the foreign ministry in Hanoi and with the Vietnamese ambassador in Washington.

Toner confirmed that Marchant was injured in the incident, but did not disclose to what extent, except to say that Marchant was home, “up and walking around.”

The U.S. government still was waiting for an official response from the Vietnamese government, Toner said, which was why he had so few details.

Toner did not directly answer a foreign reporter’s question of how the U.S. could lodge a protest if it did not have full details of the incident.

When asked by an American reporter, the spokesperson also appeared not to know of the human rights award Marchant is to receive next month.

Toner seemed relieved when another reporter then asked a question about Pakistan.

“Good question,” he said.

A video and printed transcriptionof the briefing can be found at http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2011/01/154053.htm

Bill Robinson can be reached at brobinson@richmondregister.com or at 624-6622.

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