Vietnam has released one of its most prominent human rights activists, Father Nguyen Van Ly, so that he can receive medical treatment.
Nguyen, 63, suffered three strokes while in jail that left the right side of his body partially paralyzed. He also has a brain tumor.
“They (Vietnamese government) didn’t want to be responsible for the treatment of my tumor, which is complicated, and they wanted to improve their standing in the international community,” Nguyen explained by phone Tuesday from his Catholic church in the central city of Hue, according to The Associated Press.
The long-time rights activist, who began protesting the communist government in the 1970s, was serving an eight-year prison sentence for disseminating anti-government propaganda. He had served three of those years when he was released on Monday.
As an activist, he campaigned for religious freedom, democracy and free media in communist Vietnam.
His effort has garnered support from around the world, including from the United States. In July, 37 U.S. senators sent a letter to President Nguyen Minh Triet calling for the Catholic priest’s release. Sen. Barbara Box (D-Calif.), who was among the signers of the letter, released a statement Monday welcoming Nguyen’s freedom while denouncing his arrest and trial.
"It is long past time for Vietnam to abide by its own constitution and international law and immediately release all those detained for their peaceful advocacy of religious and political freedoms," Boxer said.
Nguyen on Tuesday said he will always consider himself a prisoner of conscience and does not accept the charges against him.
In total, Nguyen has spent more than 15 years in prison because of his human rights activism.
The U.S. State Department named Vietnam a “country of particular concern” in 2004 for its systematic and egregious religious freedom violations. But the State Department lifted the CPC designation in November 2006.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan federal government commission that monitors religious freedom in the world, recommends the United States again mark Vietnam with the CPC designation.
The State Department’s 2009 Human Rights Report, released last week, acknowledges that Vietnam’s human rights record remains problematic.
“The government increased its suppression of dissent, arresting and convicting several political activists,” the report reads. “The government utilized or tolerated the use of force to resolve disputes with a Buddhist order in Lam Dong and Catholic groups with unresolved property claims. Workers were not free to organize independent unions, and independent labor activists faced arrest and harassment.”
But the State Department has not indicated that it will add Vietnam again to the CPC list.
Father Nguyen Van Ly has been regularly used by the U.S. State Department and USCIRF as an example of religious freedom violation in Vietnam.
News of his release was welcomed by rights activists and politicians around the world, but it is unclear how long Nguyen will actually be free. Vietnamese authorities, according to Nguyen, said he had one year to receive medical treatment and then he should return to prison. But the activist added that the probation can be extended at the request of his family.
“We warmly welcome the release of Father Nguyen Van Ly, whose work defending human rights has seen him imprisoned many times following trials that did not follow due process under Vietnamese or international law,” said Tina Lambert, advocacy director for Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which was involved in the campaign to free Nguyen. “Father Ly will now be able to spend time with his family and receive appropriate medical assistance.”
Human rights activists highlight that many other Vietnamese human rights and democracy activists remain in jail. They hope to continue to put pressure on the Vietnamese government to release other dissidents.