In an apparent goodwill gesture ahead of President Barack Obama’s state visit to Vietnam, Hanoi released a 70-year-old Catholic priest and prisoner of conscience on Friday as human rights activists urged Obama not to overlook their cause in his meetings next week.
Catholic Priest Nguyen Van Ly was tried in 2007 and convicted on charges of conducting “propaganda against the state” and sentenced to eight years in prison and five years on probation for violating Vietnam’s notorious Article 88 of the penal code.
His release was announced by the Catholic Archdiocese of Hue. Catholic Priest Phan Vam Loi told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that nearly two decades in prison had taken their toll.
“I noticed that his health was deteriorating. He was very thin and did not look as good as before,” Phan Vam Loi said. “He could not stand straight. He was hunched when walking. That was the destruction of eight years in prison.”
Ly’s latest stint in jail was not his first. As the co-founder of Bloc 8406, a coalition of Vietnamese political groups that advocates for democratic reforms, he has been targeted for some time. He was arrested in 1977, 2001, and 2007 for various crimes against the state.
While prison has taken its physical toll, Ly is apparently unbowed.
“Spiritually, he was still bright and determined,” Phan Vam Loi told RFA. “He said that they should not let any policeman or security people guard or monitor him at the church. He said by doing that they invite him to continue his fight.”
Gift for Obama
Nguyen Van Ly is also under no illusions as to why he was released, Phan Vam Loi said.
“They told Ly that this is a pardon from the state’s president, but Ly told them that this is not a pardon but a gift to the U.S. before the U.S. president visits Vietnam,” Phan Vam Loi told RFA. “Besides I’m not guilty so you can’t pardon me,” Loi quoted Ly as saying.
Nguyen Van Ly’s release highlights a key conflict Obama faces in Vietnam.
As ties between the two former enemies grow closer, Vietnam’s wish to keep China contained in the South China Sea dovetails neatly with the U.S. desire to ensure the vital seaway stays open.
While Vietnam wants the U.S. to eliminate its arms embargo against the country, and Washington seems willing to approve more arms sales, Obama also wants to Hanoi to undertake human rights reforms.
White House officials say that during the visit that officially starts on Monday, Obama will meet Vietnam's new president, Tran Dai Quang, as well as its new prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, and Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong.
While he will also meet with top government officials, Obama is also scheduled to meet with dissidents and deliver a speech to the Vietnamese people.
“On Tuesday, May 24th, the President will have a meeting with members of Vietnamese civil society as he does in countries around the world,” Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said on Friday.
“That will also give him an opportunity to reaffirm his commitment to human rights and inclusive governance in Vietnam, as we do in countries around the world,” he said “So he'll have an opportunity to hear the views and concerns of civil society and share his own thoughts in return.”
Rhodes said Obama has not “finalized a decision related” to the arms embargo, “but it is something that we regularly review and we certainly expect that it will be a subject of discussion with the Vietnamese.”
While he stopped short of saying there is a human rights quid-pro-quo in the arms sales decision, Rhodes said the administration is looking at the U.S.-Vietnam relationship holistically.
“We are thinking through how our evolving security cooperation is going to look moving forward,” he said. “We are looking at, of course, how our broader relationship is evolving, including our continued commitment to support human rights in Vietnam.”
Little hope for change
Vietnamese blogger Le Dung in Hanoi told RFA that some activists have gone to the U.S. embassy in Hanoi to ask about Obama’s visit and asked to meet him to talk about human rights issue and were assured there would be an opportunity.
While Catholic Priest Nguyen Van Ly’s release could be read as a positive sign, other rights activists expressed doubts that Hanoi would undertake any real change.
“I don’t have much hope for this visit, because the government’s leaders have a lot of interests,” Danang activist Khuc Thua Son told RFA. “They may compromise on matters like economy, education and health care but not on political issues and their right to power.”
While rights defenders are concerned that the visit will change little, activist Thuy Nga in Ha Nam province told RFA that external pressure could have an impact.
“I think the fight inside the country is the most important factor, but Obama’s visit can have an external effect, and I have hope in diplomatic ways,” Thuy Nga said. “Obama can raise his voice to protect the Vietnamese people who are suppressed by the government of Vietnam.”
Thuy Nga added: “While I believe that external pressure can have some impact, what’s most important is what goes on inside the country.”
Reported by Gia Minh and Hoang Dung for RFA's Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.