Vietnam Plans to Free 8,000 Prisoners, Including Activists

Vietnam plans to release some political dissidents as part of a larger amnesty for the Lunar New Year. The amnesties come ahead of a deadline for the United States to decide whether to impose sanctions on Vietnam over its policies on religion.

It is tradition in Vietnam to release large numbers of prisoners for the annual Tet festival. But 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 are to be freed along with about 8,000 other prisoners ahead of the Lunar New Year, which begins February 9. Both were jailed for speaking out against the ruling Communist Party.

Dr. Que, who has been in and out of prison over the past 20 years, was arrested in 2003 after posting articles on the Internet criticizing state control of the media. He was sentenced to 30 months in prison for "abusing democratic rights."

Father Ly was originally 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. That sentence was later reduced to 10 years.

Daniel Alberman, a Southeast Asia researcher for the rights group Amnesty International, says Vietnam has not released prominent political prisoners since the late 1990's. He says international efforts helped bring about this amnesty.

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

Last year, Washington 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 March 15.

Father Ly's release after serving just four years could be seen as a gesture by Hanoi hoping to stave off sanctions. Earlier this month, Vietnam also allowed an exiled Buddhist leader to return after 39 years away from his country.

The outspoken priest's case also may have something to do with Vietnam's relations with the Roman Catholic leadership. Earlier this month, a senior representative from the Vatican arrived in Hanoi for talks aimed at establishing diplomatic ties for the first time since the Vietnam War ended in 1975.

Amnesty International and the news media report that at least two other Vietnamese prisoners of conscience are to be released. Mr. Alberman from Amnesty says many others are still being held in Vietnam and he called for their release.