BANGKOK—Vietnam has released one of its best-known political prisoners, Catholic priest Nguyen Van Ly, who emerged from jail five years early defiantly criticizing the government that jailed him.
Ly, 63, said he was freed at 4 a.m. Monday and reached home in Hue at 5 p.m.—and he was informed that he would be freed only late the preceding day.
“I have suffered three strokes,” he said. “The first was in May 2009, the second in July, and the third in November. My health condition just got worse every time.”
“The third time, they sent me to a police hospital in Hanoi. They found out that two of the arteries in my neck were blocked, but more seriously they found I have a tumor measuring about 2.5 cms in my brain on the left side. They think the tumor may be affecting my nerves, causing the right side of my body to become paralyzed.”
“I’m not satisfied with what they call the temporary suspension of my sentence, because if I accept the term ‘temporary suspension,’ it suggests that I accept the sentence they gave me. I don’t accept even a ‘permanent suspension’ because this also means I accept the sentence,” Ly said.
“I think the sentence they gave me was against international conventions and uncivilized,” he said in a telephone interview from his family home in Hue, in central Vietnam.
Icon of suppressionDuring Ly's four-hour trial in 2007, he was denied access to a lawyer and silenced by security guards when he attempted to speak. Televised images of a guard slapping his hand over Ly’s mouth became an international icon.
A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi said he was aware of reports that Ly had been paroled for medical treatment and called his release “a welcome humanitarian gesture.”
Ly has spent some 16 years in prison over the last 30 years for advocating greater human rights.
He was last jailed in 2007 with a sentence of eight years followed by five years of house arrest for spreading propaganda against the state.
Vietnamese authorities couldn’t be reached to comment or explain Ly’s early release.
Western governments have called repeatedly for Ly's freedom. In July, 37 U.S. senators urged Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet to set him free.
In recent months, Vietnamese courts have imprisoned at least 16 people in what some analysts say has been an unusually harsh crackdown on dissent.
Need to catch up
Ly said he had undergone four months of treatment.
“My condition is improved, but they didn’t operate on my brain because they were worried about causing more damage. They told my family to write a letter seeking my release but also told them not to inform me because they knew I would object.”
“I will let my family take me home because I know they love me and they want to take care of me,” he added.
“Roughly 160 years ago, Karl Marx wrote his Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital in London—he wasn’t arrested and he finished both works,” Ly said.
“Nowadays, when Vietnamese people do the same things, they get arrested. This proves that Vietnam’s laws are even more backward than laws back then, 160 years ago in London.”
Ly said he would follow the treatment prescribed for him and had no specific plans.
“When I was in prison I could read only two official newspapers ... I also watched the news on TV every day. But I don’t really know what happened outside, in the Vietnamese community inside and outside the country. I need time to get to know the outside world again.”
Original reporting by Do Hieu for RFA's Vietnamese service. Translated from the Vietnamese by Hanh Seide. Vietnamese service director: Khanh Nguyen. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.