The early release of several Vietnamese political prisoners in recent weeks represents “a step in the right direction” by Hanoi although scores of others remain behind bars and there should be no let up in the campaign to win their immediate freedom, rights groups and Vietnamese dissidents said Tuesday.
In just over a month, Vietnam’s one party communist state has released five political prisoners, including pro-democracy activist Nguyen Tien Trung, writer Vi Duc Hoi and human rights lawyer Cu Huy Ha Vu in the last week.
The surprise move came as Vietnam negotiates a free trade agreement with the United States where lawmakers are pushing for Hanoi to take steps to improve its human rights record.
“We are delighted that these men are out of prison but they should never have been locked-up in the first place,” Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s Deputy Asia-Pacific director, said in a statement.
“The releases are a step in the right direction for freedom of expression and we hope that they reflect a shift in Vietnam’s commitment to respecting human rights,” Abbott said.
Amnesty said that at least 70 prisoners of conscience remain behind bars for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression, many of whom have been unfairly tried and have faced degrading treatment and ill-treatment in detention.
The group called on the Vietnamese government to “free all those who remain imprisoned for speaking out.”
“The authorities should build on this positive step by immediately and unconditionally releasing all prisoners of conscience who still languish in prison simply for peacefully expressing their opinion,” Abbott said.
Trung, a 30-year-old blogger who had established a group calling for political reform, was released over the weekend after more than four years in prison.
Trung, who was not due for release until January 2017, had been convicted of attempting to “overthrow the people’s administration” after only 15 minutes of deliberation during a 2010 trial Amnesty said strongly suggested that the judgment had been prepared in advance of the hearing.
His co-defendant Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, who the group also considers a prisoner of conscience, is still serving a 16-year sentence.
Hoi, a 56-year-old writer and former member of the ruling Vietnam Communist Party, was released April 11, nearly a year-and-a-half earlier than expected.
Hoi had been expelled from the party in 2007 for calling for democratic reform and then arrested in 2010 and jailed for eight years for promoting democracy online. His sentence was reduced to five years on appeal.
Vu, one of Vietnam’s most prominent dissidents, was released last week after serving three years of a seven-year prison sentence on anti-state charges and was allowed to travel to the U.S.
Two former Vietnamese political prisoners told RFA’s Vietnamese Service Tuesday that Hanoi’s decision to release the five dissidents over such a short period of time may have stemmed from international pressure.
Pham Minh Hoang, who once served time for his democracy activism, said the move to free the five in just over a month was “unprecedented.”
“Five people freed within five weeks shows that there is something going on, but the government does not do this kind of thing without getting something in return,” he said.
“Ever since Vietnam was elected to the U.N. Human Rights Council [in November last year], everything has happened for a reason. I think there are some indications that they are leaning towards the West—especially the U.S.—just to show that they do respect human rights and [to facilitate trade] negotiations.”
Washington is at present negotiating with Vietnam and 10 other Asia-Pacific nations to conclude a free trade agreement.
Lawyer Nguyen Van Dai, also formerly imprisoned for democracy activism, called the releases a “huge encouragement for the movement inside the country.”
“We have to admit that the international community has played a certain role in this, but in order to change the human rights situation in a more substantial way and democratize Vietnam, the inside elements must play the decisive role,” he said.
“If the movement inside Vietnam is not strong enough to make the government compromise or accept democracy, then international efforts can only go so far as to push the government to release people. They can’t deliver any change to Vietnam’s political system.”
Vietnamese authorities had also released 50-year-old activist Dinh Dang Dinh and poet Nguyen Huu Cau, 68, in March.
Dinh, who was jailed in 2011 after starting a petition against a mining project, had been diagnosed with advanced stomach cancer while in prison and was granted an amnesty by President Truong Tan Sang shortly before his death on April 3.
One of Vietnam’s longest-jailed political prisoners, Cau was freed on March 21, also after receiving an amnesty from Sang, and immediately hospitalized for a heart condition and low cerebral blood flow.
He had been imprisoned since 1982, when he was arrested over poems and songs he wrote about corruption and abuse of power by officials. He was given a death sentence which was reduced on appeal to life in prison.
The Vietnamese government has come under constant criticism from rights groups and Western governments for its intolerance of political dissent and systematic violations of freedom of religion.
All newspapers and television channels in Vietnam are state-run. Lawyers, bloggers and activists are regularly subject to arbitrary arrest and detention, according to rights groups.
Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders says Vietnam is the world’s second biggest prison for bloggers and cyber-dissidents, after China.
Reported by Mac Lam for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.