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Vietnam Releases Internet Dissident

Vietnam confirmed Sunday that it had released Internet dissident Nguyen Vu Binh. Binh, who published pro-democracy essays on the Internet, had been in jail since December 2002. His release comes ahead of a visit to the United States by Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet. Matt Steinglass has more from Hanoi.

Nguyen Vu Binh, 39, was a journalist at the Communist Party's own magazine, Tap Chi Cong San, when he began writing pro-democracy essays in 2001 and publishing them on the Internet. Police arrested him in December 2002, and a year later he was sentenced to seven years' prison for espionage.

On Saturday, with more than two years left in his sentence, Binh was released from Ba Sao prison in Vietnam's Ha Nam province, about 50 kilometers from Hanoi.

Vietnam expert Carl Thayer, of the Australian National Defense University, said the amnesty is linked to an upcoming visit to the United States by Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet.

"The Vietnamese aren't making the connection, but there obviously is one," he said.

The United States and Vietnam enjoy increasingly warm relations, and Triet's invitation came when U.S. President George Bush visited Hanoi last November.

But since the beginning of 2007, Vietnam has been cracking down on democracy activists, sentencing several to long prison terms.

In May, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a resolution condemning Vietnam's crackdown, and the White House issued a statement deploring the arrests.

Thayer says he understands the United States would have postponed Triet's meeting with Bush unless Vietnam made concessions on dissidents.

"It is clear that Binh's release is directly related to the fact that representations had been made," said Thayer. "It was very clear that unless some action was taken, that it would be inconvenient, I think was the expression, to receive Triet at this time. Which would have meant a postponement until next year, at least, and real embarrassment for the Vietnamese."

More dissidents may be released before Triet leaves for the United States on June 18. The two countries currently enjoy a trade relationship worth $9 billion a year, and the presidents are expected to discuss a trade and investment framework agreement.