From her home in California, Ngo Mai Huong talks about the plight of her husband, the imprisoned Vietnamese-American democracy activist Nguyen Quoc Quan. A member of Viet Tan, he travelled to Vietnam in November last year and was arrested by the Communist authorities for distributing leaflets promoting democracy through non-violent means. He has been unable to see or contact his family ever since. He goes to trial on May 13, charged with terrorism. Read the story of American-Chinese pro-democracy campaigner Yang Jianli here.

My husband, Quan, was arrested on November 17, 2007 during a mission in Vietnam. He was there to meet pro-democracy activists and discuss steps towards the peaceful democratisation of Vietnam.

I was told about his arrest by a member of Viet Tan, the pro-democracy group that my husband joined more than a decade ago. When I heard the news I was deeply disturbed. My husband hadn’t told me he was going to Vietnam and it came as a surprise.

After I learned the news I called my children. We have two boys: Khoa, who is 15, and Tri, 14. I held their hands when I told them: “Your dad was arrested in Vietnam.” The older boy stood up, went into his room and shut the door. I knew that he was crying, so I let him be. The younger one had tears streaming down his face.

Quan often talked with the boys about his work. When they saw him work late into the night they would ask him what he was doing. He told them: “I’m doing work for Vietnam. I want Vietnam to have democracy.” He knew he would one day go back to Vietnam, and under the Communist government this would be dangerous. Once, I heard him ask: “If I was arrested, how would you feel?” The older boy asked if he would die. He said: “No, probably not. But I might get hurt a little.” And Khoa said: “Then it’s worth it.”

For the first two months after his arrest, the children and I were in a state of shock and fear. I was occupied with trying to find out his whereabouts and securing his release and didn’t pay close attention to the boys. The arrest had a tremendous effect on them. Whatever sadness I felt or whatever difficulties I encountered, I had to overcome them for the sake of holding our family together.

Quan is an idealist and he loves his country. I loved him for his aspiration. When he took on this work, he accepted the risks that came with it. I love him and accepted those risks for myself when I married him.

It has been many months now since his arrest and I have yet to have direct contact with him. The only news comes from the US consulate in Vietnam. Every month they are allowed to visit him. And Quan lets me know through the visitor that his spirit is strong and he hopes that mine is too.

I have written him letters for each visit, but the Vietnamese government only allows him to read the parts where I talk about myself or the children, they don’t allow any news of his brother, younger sisters or friends. Despite my repeated requests they don’t allow him to write to us.

I have written to the Vietnamese foreign minister and also asked to see the Vietnamese ambassador in Washington DC, to request a visa to go to Vietnam. None of my letters has received a response. The staff at the Vietnamese embassy in Washington told me I had no right to go to Vietnam to visit my husband, but gave no reason. The Vietnamese media has called my husband a terrorist, but there is no official charge.

Quan is a strong person and by denying him visiting rights, I think they are trying to break his spirit. I don’t know why, but they must hope to gain something from it.

Quan is a good husband and father. He is a former high school teacher and is very concerned with the education system in Vietnam. He told me that he would like to return to Vietnam one day and teach poor students in rural areas.

Living in America has made him appreciate freedom and human rights and he wants the Vietnamese people to know those too. He sees Vietnam in its big picture. He can only do so much, but freedom and democracy will bring change to the masses. That’s why he joined Viet Tan, because of its non-violent approach to the struggle.

The persistent appeals by Vietnamese communities and by Viet Tan members have helped tremendously in getting attention and support from US elected officials. At this very moment I am on Capitol Hill and have met with the US State Department. They have assured me that the US ambassador has repeatedly raised my husband’s case with the Vietnamese government.

With the support of the American government, and the knowledge that my husband is a peaceful activist, I am confident that he will soon regain his freedom. I will continue to lobby, with the members of Viet Tan and the Vietnamese communities, until the day my husband is released.

• Ngo Mai Huong was talking to Tran Angelina Do in Washington DC.