Vietnam has freed prominent blogger and activist Ta Phong Tan, who flew to the U.S. after her release from prison over the weekend and vowed to continue her fight for freedom of expression in the authoritarian Southeast Asian nation from abroad.
Rights groups and media watchdogs welcomed her release, but noted that Vietnam continues to jail several other activists and called on the country’s one party communist government to release them immediately and unconditionally.
Tan—a 47-year-old former policewoman who has received international awards for her work—was sentenced to 10 years in jail in 2012 for "anti-government propaganda" after she was arrested for writing in her blog Cong Ly v Su That (Truth and Justice) about human rights and democracy.
Speaking to RFA’s Vietnamese Service on her arrival to Los Angeles, California late on Saturday, Tan thanked her supporters and the U.S. government for taking her in and said she would soon return to her work promoting freedom of speech in Vietnam.
“I’m very glad to come here—the land of freedom of the press and expression, where we can say what we believe,” she said.
“I think that right after I settle down, I will work again.”
Tan said she had a message for her fellow activists who are fighting for freedom inside Vietnam.
“Persevere, be patient and don’t ever bow down before violence and suppression,” she said.
“Maintain hope in the future and in those working [for freedom] abroad.”
Tan told RFA that authorities gave her no indication she would be released, but said she knew her supporters would someday help to secure her freedom.
“I have thought of this day since the end of the trial,” she said.
“I knew that the U.S. Embassy and European Union representative office in Vietnam, as well as several nongovernmental organizations, had issued press releases condemning the trial and verdict in support of us, and I knew this day would come.”
Arrest and trial
Tan, who is a member of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam (IJAVN), was arrested in September 2011 and tried along with IJAVN founder Nguyen Van Hai, who blogs under the name Dieu Cay, and blogger Phan Thanh Hai, who is known online as Anh Ba Saigon.
Nguyen Van Hai was deported to the U.S. following his release from prison last year and Phan Thanh Hai has also since been freed.
Family members told RFA Tan’s fellow inmates at her prison in Thanh Hoa province would “mentally terrorize” her and regularly curse her mother, Dang Thi Kim Lieng, who burned herself to death three years ago to protest the charges against her daughter.
In May, Tan held a hunger strike for more than three weeks to protest what she said was the mistreatment of political prisoners by authorities in her detention center, after being held in a windowless cell despite high temperatures, and having her personal hygiene products confiscated for no reason.
Nguyen Van Hai, who was the first to meet Tan at the airport on Saturday, said he was overjoyed to see her and that he would help her prepare for meeting with the Vietnamese community, as he was familiar with the emotions she would be experiencing on her arrival.
California state senator Janet Nguyen—a former boat refugee who fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975—welcomed Tan’s release while addressing supporters at the airport, but called for greater pressure on Hanoi to improve its rights record.
“Please don’t consider this a big victory today … We must have solidarity so we can continue to pressure the government of Vietnam to bring freedom and democracy to the country,” she said.
Tan’s release also drew praise from Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), though the two New York-based groups slammed Hanoi for its continued detention of other activists and harsh treatment of its critics.
“This release continues Vietnam's cynical practice of releasing high profile dissidents from prison directly into forced exile, with immediate departure from the country being the price of their freedom,” Phil Roberston, deputy director of HRW’s Asia Division, said in a statement Sunday.
“By acting to diminish the numbers of its critics one overseas flight a time instead of ensuring that activists like Ta Phong Tan are released unconditionally, Hanoi is providing [an] aura of human rights progress while actually tightening political control.”
HRW called for Vietnam to “immediately release other imprisoned activists, let them remain in the country if they wish to do so, and cease interfering in their political activities and abusing their rights.”
In a statement issued Monday, CPJ's Asia program coordinator Bob Dietz called Tan’s release “gratifying news” but noted that Vietnam “is still holding more than a dozen journalists behind bars in connection with their work.”
“Vietnamese authorities should do all they can, including repeal the country's harsh anti-press laws, to ensure that journalists are able to work and report freely,” he said.
Public affairs officer Terry White at the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi also welcomed Vietnam’s decision to release Tan, who he said “decided to travel to the United States” after she was freed, according to Reuters news agency. He urged Hanoi to release other political prisoners, saying Vietnamese should be allowed to "express their political views without fear of retribution."
The U.S. State Department honored Tan in March 2013 as one of the world’s 10 most courageous women on International Women’s Day, and in May marked Press Freedom Day by calling on Vietnam to immediately free her.
Police surveillance and harassment is a common experience for dissident bloggers in Vietnam, which is listed by press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders as an “Enemy of the Internet.”
Government critics and bloggers are usually charged under Article 258 of the country’s penal code, which critics say is vaguely worded and used to prosecute anyone who speaks out against the government.
Because the state controls the media, the Vietnamese have turned to blogs and social media for news that contains less propaganda.
As of the end of last year, Vietnam had detained 29 bloggers for “abusing democratic freedoms,” “subversion,” “anti-government propaganda” or “trying to overthrow the government,” according to Reporters Without Borders.
London-based human rights group Amnesty International said in April that Vietnam had at least 60 prisoners of conscience, including bloggers—many of whom were convicted for peacefully expressing their views after unfair trials.
Reported by Ngoc Lan for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.