Hanoi (AFP) – One of Vietnam’s most prominent dissidents vowed to continue his anti-China activism after being released from prison on Saturday after serving two and a half years on tax evasion charges.
Le Quoc Quan, a Catholic blogger and lawyer from the communist nation, was freed from jail early Saturday in central Quang Nam province and met by family members who had long campaigned for his release.
“I am very happy,” he told AFP in his first interview since being freed, saying he would head straight to a hospital for a health check before spending time with his loved ones.
The 43-year-old had been on hunger strike five times in prison with the most recent stint of 14-days ending on June 24.
In a characteristically defiant mood, Quan promised to continue the anti-Beijing activism that first attracted the ire of authorities.
“I have become very concerned again about invasions of China on Vietnamese sovereignty regarding the island,” he told AFP in English, referring to construction and land reclamation by Beijing in the South China Sea.
“I pray every day for Vietnam’s sovereignty (to be respected),” said the lawyer, adding he looked forward to reading up on the news after being cut off from the world while in prison.
Quan, who blogged on a range of sensitive topics including civil rights, political pluralism and religious freedom, had been in detention since December 2012.
His October 2013 conviction on the tax evasion charges was sharply condemned by the United States and denounced by rights campaigners as bogus and politically motivated.
The activist was also heavily involved in a string of anti-China demonstrations in 2011 over Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Vietnam has struggled to balance intense domestic criticism of its handling of China’s growing assertiveness in the region against traditionally friendly ties to fellow communists leaders in Beijing.
Anti-China protests in the capital Hanoi have sometimes been allowed to go ahead as a means, analysts say, of sending Beijing a message. But authorities have also broken up demonstrations violently, arresting participants.
– ‘Miscarriage of justice’ –
A photo posted on Facebook by Quan’s brother Le Quoc Quyet Saturday showed a thin but healthy looking Quan smiling and hugging his wife. It attracted more than 1,500 likes in two hours.
He told AFP Saturday that his imprisonment was “a miscarriage of justice” and that he aimed to help others in similar positions who were “still suffering in jail”.
The blogger has always denied the charges against him.
Vietnam, a one-party state, is routinely denounced by rights groups and Western governments for its intolerance of political dissent and systematic violations of freedom of religion.
But as Hanoi seeks closer diplomatic and trade ties with former wartime foe America to counter Beijing’s increasingly assertive behaviour in the South China Sea, it appears to have toned down persecution of domestic critics.
Last year, after Beijing moved an oil rig into waters claimed by Hanoi, anti-China demonstrations rapidly morphed into violent protests, with foreign-owned factories set ablaze. At least two Chinese workers were killed.
Vietnam is also part of the ongoing negotiations over the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a huge Pacific-wide free trade deal advocated primarily by the United States.
The ruling Communist Party’s Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong will travel to the US next month, the first such visit by a party leader.
In another sign of the changing relationship, Washington recently hailed “progress” on rights issues in Vietnam, saying the number of prisoners of conscience in the country is down from more than 160 in 2013 to around 100, pointing to “virtually no” prosecutions for peaceful political activism or expression this year.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said he did not think the release was linked to the TPP deal as Quan had served his full sentence.
“But it would be good if the US government uses some of its much talked about leverage to demand that from now on Vietnam stops harassing Quan and lets him exercise his rights without further interference or retaliation.”