Authorities in Vietnam have released a writer linked to a banned political group from prison five months ahead of the end of his four-year sentence for anti-state crimes, a move one fellow activist suggested was linked to an upcoming visit by a high-ranking official to the U.S.
Le Thanh Tung, 46, was freed Monday and escorted by police officers to his home in the Soc Son district of the capital Hanoi, he told RFA’s Vietnamese Service, a day after his release.
The ex-soldier and freelance journalist was sentenced in August 2012 by a Hanoi court under Article 88 of the Criminal Code, which prohibits “conducting propaganda against the state,” a charge rights groups say Vietnam routinely uses to silence dissent.
Tung, who had been detained in December 2011, was affiliated with Bloc 8406—a banned coalition of political groups advocating democratic reform in the one-party Communist state.
Le Khac Toan, a Hanoi-based activist, told RFA that Tung’s early release was a concession ahead of a visit to Washington by Vietnam’s party chief Nguyen Phu Trong slated for next month.
“Perhaps the release of Le Thanh Tung … can be considered a ‘gift,’ paving the way for Nguyen Phu Trong’s visit to the U.S. in July,” he said.
“[The Vietnamese government] doesn’t want to cause tension with the U.S. and it’s also an act to save face for Trong.”
Vietnam is currently a negotiating partner in the proposed U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to create a multilateral free trade agreement in the Asia-Pacific region, but a number of U.S. lawmakers have expressed opposition to including the country, given its current rights record.
Trong will be the first ever Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary to visit the U.S. and is expected to discuss issues including security and economic cooperation with U.S. President Barack Obama, amid China’s rise in Asia.
The trip will mark the 20th anniversary of the resumption of diplomatic ties between the former enemies, but boisterous protests by U.S.-based Vietnamese activists are expected.
Tung had been detained by Hanoi police 13 times since becoming involved in rights activism four years before his arrest.
Authorities also confiscated his cell phone several times and subjected him to other forms of intimidation.
As a member of Bloc 8406, which is named after its April 8, 2006 manifesto signed by thousands online, Tung had helped workers and land petitioners, according to the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.
Other members of the banned group have been jailed under charges of endangering state security and conducting propaganda against the state.
Human Rights Watch has accused Vietnam of mounting a sophisticated and sustained attack on online dissent, including by detaining and intimidating anti-government bloggers, while France-based Reporters Without Borders names the country an “Enemy of the Internet.”
Reported by Gia Minh for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Ninh Pham. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.