Vietnam to Release 8,000 Prisoners as Part of Amnesty

As part of a larger amnesty for the Lunar New Year, Vietnam plans to release some 8,000 prisoners, reported news agencies and rights groups on Monday. The amnesties come ahead of a deadline for the United States to decide whether to impose sanctions on Vietnam over its policies on religion.

Although it tradition in Vietnam to release large numbers of prisoners for the annual Tet festival, this year the government decided to include two of its most prominent critics—Roman Catholic priest Father Nguyen Van Ly and physician Nguyen Dan Que.

Ly and Que, who are to be freed along with about 8,000 other prisoners ahead of the Lunar New Year, which begins Feb. 9, were jailed for speaking out against the ruling Communist Party.

According to Amnesty International, Ly has been an outspoken and persistent critic of government religious policies and human rights in particular with regard to confiscation of church property since 1975. He had previously spent one year in detention without trial in the late 1970s and was then sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment on account of his peaceful dissenting views in 1983.

In May 2001, Ly was sentenced to 15 years in prison for abusing religious freedom after urging the United States not to ratify its trade agreement with Vietnam unless Hanoi improved its record on religious freedom, according to the U.S.-funded Voice of America. That sentence was later reduced to 10 years.

“Ly's release after serving just four years could be seen as a gesture by Hanoi hoping to stave off sanctions,” Voice of America reported.

Amnesty International, which adopted Ly as a prisoner of conscience, welcomed news of the release of Ly and the several other Vietnamese prisoners of conscience.

“Amnesty International has been campaigning for these prisoners of conscience for many years and some of the credit for their release must go to the thousands of Amnesty International volunteers worldwide,” the agency stated. “From Thailand to Portugal, members have held vigils and written to the Vietnamese authorities and their own governments to ensure that these prisoners have not been forgotten.”

Daniel Alberman, a Southeast Asia researcher for Amnesty International, told Voice of America that Vietnam has not released prominent political prisoners since the late 1990's and that international efforts helped bring about this amnesty.

"There's been sustained international pressure on the Vietnamese government regarding these and other cases,” Alberman said. “There's many criticism from many, many quarters on these cases, who are extremely well known.”

Last year, the U.S. State Department placed Vietnam on its list of countries of particular concern for religious freedom, a roster of particularly repressive regimes that includes Iran and North Korea. The United States is to decide whether to impose sanctions on Vietnam by Mar. 15.