Hanoi (AFP) – Authoritarian Vietnam released one of the country’s longest serving prisoners of conscience on Friday, just days before US President Barack Obama is due to visit, the Catholic Church said.
Nguyen Van Ly, a priest who has spent much of the last two decades either in jail or under house arrest, was released Friday morning, church officials said.
“Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly has returned to the mother diocese on Friday morning after his years and months in (northern) Nam Ha jail,” the archdiocese of Hue said in a short statement on its website.
The site also ran several photos of the ageing priest, dressed in a loose white shirt and baseball cap, being welcomed by church members.
Neither church nor government officials were immediately available for comment.
Father Ly, who is in his early 70s, is often compared to Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi — both are veteran dissidents who have spent years in pursuit of greater democratic freedoms.
But while Myanmar has recently emerged a nascent democracy, Vietnam remains a tightly controlled one-party state.
Ly was jailed three times for a total of 14 years before his fourth and latest imprisonment in March 2007 when he was charged for spreading propaganda against the communist state.
He had been accused of helping to found “Bloc 8406”, considered one of the Vietnam’s first organised pro-democracy coalitions.
He gained prominence with his anti-government actions, including hunger strikes and several widely circulated missives calling for a multi-party system.
Ly was briefly released from jail in March 2010 to seek treatment for a brain tumour and was placed under house arrest.
He was returned to jail more than a year later, sparking calls from the United States and international rights groups for his release.
Obama is scheduled to arrive in Hanoi early Monday for a trip in which trade, security and human rights are expected to top the agenda between the two former enemies.
Speculation has swirled that the centrepiece of the visit could be the complete rollback of a decades-old US arms embargo on Vietnam.
Washington and Hanoi have grown close in recent years, partly through a joint desire to check Beijing’s sabre rattling in the disputed South China Sea.
But rights activists fear this deepening closeness may prompt Washington to go easier on Vietnam over its dismal rights record.
Vietnam ruthlessly cracks down on protests, jails dissidents, bans trade unions and controls all domestic media.
Several political prisoners remain in jail, including Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, who is serving a 16-year sentence on charges of trying to overthrow the communist regime.
Online reports say he is planning a hunger strike in the next few days to protest his ongoing incarceration.