HANOI — One of Vietnam’s best known dissidents, a rights lawyer and son of a revolutionary poet, has been released early from prison. Afterwards, he traveled to the United States.
Lawyer Cu Huy Ha Vu, 56, is one of Vietnam’s most famous dissidents. He had served three years of a seven-year prison sentence before he was suddenly released.
A spokesman from the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi said Vu and his wife arrived in Washington, D.C. on Monday.
Although the timing and details of his release were not immediately clear, Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia division, said Vu’s family had been negotiating for his freedom for some time.
Vu had reportedly held a hunger strike over poor conditions in prison and suffers from a heart condition.
“My understanding was that this is something that was being discussed for quite some time. I gather his health situation in the prison was quite bad and so the family decided that they would accept the release as long as he left the country,” said Robertson.
Vu was jailed in April 2011 on charges of spreading “propaganda against the state” under Article 88 of the penal code.
The rights lawyer gained notoriety in 2009 when he tried to sue Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung over Chinese-run bauxite mines in the Central Highlands.
He was charged with calling for the dissolution of Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party, advocating a multi-party political system, and characterizing the Vietnam War as a civil war.
Vu is the son of Cu Huy Can, a poet and a minister under the provisional government of modern Vietnam’s founding father Ho Chi Minh. He attracted a diverse group of supporters, including Catholics, academics, and high-ranking members of the Communist Party.
An activist and economist, Nguyen Quang A, said he thinks that by releasing Vu on the condition that he remains in the United States, the Vietnamese government is trying to “keep face” [maintain respect]. He said there was pressure from both inside and outside Vietnam, from Vietnamese civil society and the U.S. government.
Vu’s release comes days after democracy activist and blogger Dinh Danh Dinh died of stomach cancer at his home after he was released early from prison. He was jailed for six years in 2012 on a charge of anti-government propaganda under Article 88 of the penal code.
Robertson said he does not believe the treatment of the two dissidents was a sign that Hanoi was changing its hardline attitude toward government critics.
“Dinh Danh Dinh - he didn’t receive the necessary treatment and assistance he needed while he was in prison. You look at the before and after photographs, what he looked like before he went into prison and what he looked like when he came out, it’s night and day,” said Robertson.
Human Rights Watch said 61 Vietnamese dissidents and activists were convicted and sentenced to prison in 2013, compared to about 40 such convictions a year earlier.
On the day Vu’s release was announced, Le Quoc Quyet, younger brother of blogger Le Quoc Quan, who is currently serving a 30-month prison sentence for tax evasion, said on his Facebook page: “I hope this news is true and hope soon I will hear the same about my brother."