Dissident blogger Nguyen Van Hai arrived in the United States following his release from a Vietnam prison to a welcome from a throng of supporters and pledged to continue his fight for democracy in his home country.
Hai, also known by his pen name Dieu Cay, landed at Los Angeles International Airport late Tuesday after being put on a plane immediately following his release from six years in jail in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi.
“I would like to express my thanks to everyone for their … efforts to free [me and other dissidents] from prison,” Hai told supporters through a translator, adding that he was delighted by the welcome he received in the U.S.
Hai said that following his release from jail, his message to other political prisoners in Vietnam is that “they are not alone.”
“Through a stronger connection with the media, people in prison still can protect themselves,” he said, suggesting outside pressure on Vietnam’s government had contributed to his freedom.
He also vowed to continue his work to bring democracy to one-party communist Vietnam, where dissent is not tolerated.
“Before coming to the U.S., [I and other jailed dissidents] already prepared for a new fight to support democracy activists in [Vietnam], especially to free dissident writers in the country,” he said.
Hai was first arrested in April 2008 after helping to lead anti-China protests sparked by territorial tensions in the South China Sea.
He 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.
Hai was sentenced to 12 years in prison in September 2012 amid a crackdown on bloggers in Vietnam after his online articles criticized communist rule and highlighted alleged abuses by the authorities.
Hai slammed the Vietnamese authorities for deporting him to the United States immediately after his release when his activism had been “only for the benefit of the people, for Vietnam and for the country’s sovereignty.”
An earlier statement from the State Department had welcomed Hai’s release and said that it was his decision to travel to the U.S.
Earlier on Tuesday, Hai’s ex-wife Duong Thi Tan told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that Vietnamese authorities had not allowed him to speak or meet with his family before “deporting him to exile,” and said he had not simply been released from prison as they had claimed.
Agence France-Presse quoted Hai’s son Nguyen Tri Dung, who spoke briefly to his father when he was in transit in Hong Kong, as saying that Hai had little choice but to leave Vietnam.
“If he stay in Vietnam, he have to stay in prison ... If he could be free in Vietnam, he would have stayed,” he told AFP.
After speaking with supporters on his arrival in Los Angeles, Hai pledged to fight for his return to Vietnam, as well as for the return of other Vietnamese who have fled persecution in the country and resettled in the U.S.
Former prisoners react
Former political prisoners in Vietnam welcomed Hai’s release and said that the government’s decision to exile him was likely out of fear that authorities could not control his activities inside the country.
“They are afraid of Dieu Cay’s influence because he is a person of action,” Phan Thanh Hai, also known by his blogger name Anh Ba Saigon, told RFA.
“I imagine that when he comes back, he will be very busy and will not want to rest. I used to tell [his ex-wife] Tan about that—it’s his personality. Because [the authorities] know him very well, they had to force him out of the country.”
Phan Thanh Hai said he expected Nguyen Van Hai to continue to work with the Club for Free Journalists, which the latter co-founded in Vietnam, via online networks to promote independent journalism in the country.
Writer Nguyen Xuan Nghia, who was formerly imprisoned with Hai, said it was “clear that [the government] had to free him due to international pressure, but added that “they don’t want to let him live here because they are afraid of him.”
Nghia said that he was happy Hai was free to “maximize his talents” in the U.S., instead of being shut inside a prison for the remainder of his sentence in Vietnam, but expressed concern that his work would have less of an influence from outside of the country.
“We already have a lot of [activists in the U.S.] and everybody has his own position, so Dieu Cay’s work may not be as highly valued,” he said.
Former prisoner of conscience Nguyen Dan Que said that while the role of Hai and other activists who are operating outside Vietnam might be diminished, the development of the Internet “will help them to overcome boundaries.”
“These people have just changed their turf—from inside to outside of the country,” he said.
“They are on the same path, [fighting for] the same cause … [and] each of them can still contribute to a better Vietnam in the future, in an integrated world.”
No ‘applause’ for exile
New York-based Human Rights Watch on Wednesday said in a statement that while Hai’s release was good news, he should never have been imprisoned in the first place.
“The Vietnam government severely persecuted him for years because he was brave enough to voice his opinions and tell inconvenient truths that leaders in Hanoi didn't want spreading via the internet among the Vietnamese people,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division.
“They should not receive applause for forcing him into exile as the price of his freedom.”
Robertson said that Vietnam maintains several legal provisions which allow the government to criminalize peaceful expression and called for “serious reform” to the country’s penal code.
He said that until the laws were changed, “other bloggers who take [Hai’s] place in Vietnam will still face the same systematic police harassment and abuses he did.”
Hai’s release comes ahead of a Wednesday visit to Vietnam by Tom Malinowski, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for human rights, who is expected to discuss the importance of progress on human rights in improving ties between Hanoi and Washington with government officials and civil society, according to the State Department.
The U.S. is forging closer relations with Vietnam as it looks to counter an assertive China in Southeast Asia and earlier this month Washington announced a partial lift on its ban on sales of weaponry to Hanoi to assist with Vietnam’s maritime security.
Reported by An Nguyen for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.