Vietnam releases prominent religious prisoner

Washington, USA - Vietnam released an imprisoned pastor of the banned Mennonite church, Nguyen Hong Quang, a prominent religious prisoner in the communist nation, a US advocacy group said.

"Pastor Nguyen Hong Quang has been united with his family and his congregation at the facility of the Vietnam Mennonite Christian Church in Ho Chi Minh city," Dan Duy Hoang, spokesman for the Vietnamese American Public Affairs Committee, told AFP after being informed of the news by the church in the Vietnamese city.

Quang, 45, a well known promoter of religious freedom and human rights, was found guilty late last year by a Ho Chi Minh city court of "preventing people from carrying out their official duties."

In April his appeal against a three-year jail sentence was rejected.

He was arrested on June 8, 2004 because of scuffles that broke out on March 2 between police and several Mennonites who had photographed undercover officers carrying out surveillance of Quang's home.

A trained lawyer, Quang has defended farmers' land right cases and spoken out against the arrest of religious and political dissidents.

"What we need to see now is whether Pastor Quang will have the liberty to lead his congregation or whether the government is just transferring him from a prison camp to a form of house arrest due to international pressure," Hoang said.

Vietnam is on the US State Department's blacklist of "countries of particular concern" for violating religious freedoms.

US lawmakers had called on President George W. Bush to press Vietnam to respect human rights and religious freedoms, saying expanded bilateral trade should be closely linked with progress by Hanoi in honoring basic rights for its people.

Hoang said his advocacy group was informed that a missionary in Ho Chi Minh city received a call from Quang Tuesday that he had been released. The pastor was united with his family a couple of hours after completing administrative procedures with local government.

Hoang said that according to the Vietnam Mennonite Christian Church, during the imprisonment, Quang was held in "critical health status" allegedly due to physical exhaustion from hard labor.

It is not known whether Quang's release was in conjunction with Vietnam's 60th anniversary of its independence from colonial power France on Friday.

The country's vice-foreign minister, Le Van Bang, had said Monday that Vietnam would release 21 foreigners, including four US nationals, among more than 10,400 prisoners to be given amnesty on its national day.

Apart from the Americans, there are five Cambodians, four people from Taiwan, three Malaysians, two Chinese nationals, a South Korean, a Laotian and a citizen of Cameroon.

Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai in June this year became the first leader from his country to enter the White House since the Vietnam War, and Bush said he would visit Vietnam next year.

Khai's visit came just before the two former foes marked 10 years since they established diplomatic relations.

Some 100 religious leaders remain in prison or "administrative detention," a group of US legislators told Bush in a letter ahead of Khai's visit.

There are about 1.5 million Vietnamese-Americans in the United States who are an influential force during elections.