Updated at 6:40 p.m. ET on 2014-10-21
Authorities in Hanoi have freed one of Vietnam’s most prominent jailed bloggers and dissidents and sent him to the United States, his family members and the State Department said Tuesday.
Nguyen Van Hai, also known by his pen name Dieu Cay, was handed a 12-year prison sentence in September 2012 for conducting “anti-state propaganda” amid a crackdown on bloggers in the one-party state after his online articles slammed communist rule and highlighted alleged abuses by the authorities. He was first arrested in 2008.
His ex-wife Duong Thi Tan said their son told her that Hai called while his flight was on a stopover in Hong Kong confirming that the Vietnamese authorities had freed him and let him go to the United States.
"My son told me that Hai called him and let him know that he is in Hong Kong and they let him go to the U.S," Tan told RFA's Vietnamese Service. "The phone call lasted about one minute and that was all he could say."
Tan said she was told that he was taken straight from his jail to the airport and put on a plane to the United States.
"They let him go from Hanoi airport. We are in Saigon," Tan said, speaking from Ho Chi Minh City, where she and their son are residing.
Tan expressed regret that the authorities did not allow him to speak or meet with the family before sending him to the United States.
"In fact, they did not let the family know anything about his release. There was no signal or notice. They deported him to exile, they did not release him just like what they said."
'Prisoner of conscience'
The U.S. State Department welcomed Hanoi's decision to release "this prisoner of conscience."
"He decided himself to travel to the U.S," department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters. "We have consistently called for his release and the release of all other political prisoners in Vietnam."
Just two months ago, Hai had refused to make an official application to the authorities seeking his release from prison, insisting instead that they explain the reasons for his initial arrest and demanding that he be freed without condition.
Following a visit to Vietnam in early August by U.S. Senators John McCain and Sheldon Whitehouse, rumors had spread that Hai might be freed from jail on Vietnam’s Independence Day on Sept. 2, Tan said.
On July 27, 2013, Hai ended a five-week-long hunger strike at Prison No. 6 in Vietnam’s northern Nghe An province after judicial authorities agreed to investigate his complaints over abuses in prison.
These included attempts by prison officials to force him to sign a document admitting guilt in the charges for which he was convicted, Tan said.
Arrested in April 2008 after helping to lead anti-China protests, Hai was sentenced in 2009 to 30 months in prison on a charge of tax evasion but was not freed after completing his term, and was then charged with carrying out propaganda against the state.
An appeals court upheld his sentence in December 2012, and authorities have repeatedly transferred him from one prison to another.
Hai’s case has been adopted by the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and raised by U.S. President Barack Obama, whose administration has been callng on Hanoi to release all political prisoners in Vietnam.
Twenty-six other citizen journalists held in Vietnam
Paris-based press freedoms watchdog Reporters Without Borders, which lists Vietnam as an “Enemy of the Internet,” said it was relieved to learn of Hai's release but pointed out that 26 other citizen journalists are still held in Vietnam, the world’s third biggest prison for netizens.
“We are delighted to know that Dieu Cay is free and no longer has to fear for his health, which suffered from the mistreatment he received in detention,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific Desk. “We hope he will not be kept apart from his family and that ways will be found for him to be reunited with those who have waited courageously for him for more than six years.”
Lucie Morillon, Reporters Without Borders program director, added: “We would like to stress that 26 other bloggers and citizen journalists are still being held for exercising their right to freely inform their fellow citizens and the entire world about the human rights situation in Vietnam."
"We again urge the authorities to free all detained netizens.”
Vietnam is ranked 174th out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.
Reported by RFA's Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.