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Vietnam to Free Dissident

The government of Vietnam says it has granted amnesty to one of the country's highest profile dissidents, Pham Hong Son. Western governments and human rights organizations considered Son a political prisoner.

The Vietnamese government announced on Monday it was granting amnesty to Pham Hong Son, as part of the freeing of over five thousand other prisoners. Such amnesties are often announced in honor of Vietnam's independence day on September 2.

A doctor in his mid-30s, Son was arrested in March 2002 after he translated an essay on democracy which he found on the website of the U.S. Embassy. He sent the essay to friends and to senior Vietnamese officials. In June 2003 he was convicted of espionage and sentenced to five years in prison.

Vice Minister of Public Security Le The Tiem said Son could be freed as soon as Tuesday.

Tiem said the amnesty request came from Son and his family. Foreign governments and human rights organizations had also been pressuring Vietnam to release Son, who had been the U.S. State Department's highest priority "prisoner of concern" in Vietnam.

In a statement, also on Monday, a U.S. Embassy spokesperson welcomed the release, and said the United States remained hopeful that "all of our prisoners of concern, namely Nguyen Vu Binh and Phan Van Ban, will be released soon."

Binh was sentenced to eight years in 2003 for writing controversial essays on the Internet. Ban, a former South Vietnamese police officer, has been in prison since 1978 for political activities.

Pham Hong Son may be out of prison soon, but he has not been entirely pardoned, according to Vice Minister Tiem.

Tiem says Son would still serve three years of what he called "local cooperation". Vietnamese dissidents released from prison often face years of surveillance or travel restrictions by local authorities.

Meanwhile, in recent weeks, Vietnamese authorities have reportedly re-arrested three friends in Ho Chi Minh City who had discussed multiparty democracy over the internet last autumn. And police have repeatedly questioned five Hanoi dissidents who planned to publish an independent political newsletter.