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Freed Vietnamese Dissident Threatens Legal Action Against Hanoi

FILE - Policemen and security staff stand outside the main entrance gate of Ho Chi Minh City's People's Court where three bloggers stand trial for 'anti-state propaganda,' September 2012.

A freed Vietnamese blogger says she and another online activist plan to take action against Vietnamese authorities in international court.

Ta Phong Tan, author of the blog “Cong Ly v Su That” – Vietnamese for ‘Justice and Truth’ - arrived in the United States on Sunday after being released early from a 10-year prison sentence.

She told VOA Monday that she and fellow dissident Nguyen Van Hai, who writes under the name Dieu Cay, were wrongfully imprisoned.

“We [together with blogger Dieu Cay] would bring Vietnam to international court [for jailing us]. I brought with me all the necessary documents for the lawsuit. During trials, they [Vietnamese authorities] used my writings to accuse me, but they dared not argue with me about what they said [I did]. They did not let me face prosecutors over those writings. They seriously violated Vietnamese laws, not to mention international ones. According to the laws, I am not guilty," said Ta Phong Tan.

Tan added that she had no choice but to accept exile in the U.S.

“I was given two options: one is to complete a 10-year term in prison, then five years under house arrest, and the other is to go to the U.S. In a bad situation, I had to choose a better one as I must continue my fight [for basic freedom rights of Vietnamese]. When the social and economic circumstances change in Vietnam, I would return to the country to help my compatriots," she said.

She added that she would rather go abroad to carry on her cause than staying in prison. “I could not do anything in jail. I spent four years of my life doing nothing there. It was a waste of my time.”

One of three

Tan, who had previously served in Vietnam’s armed police services, started her blog in 2006 and frequently targeted the government for what she saw as abuses and incompetence. Later, Tan joined fellow dissident bloggers Nguyen Van Hai and Phan Thanh Hai to form the “Free Vietnamese Journalists Club.”

All three were subsequently arrested on different charges but were found guilty in the same trial on allegations that they “…distorted the truth about State and Party, created anxiety among citizens and supported schemes to overthrow the government." While in detention, Tan’s mother immolated herself in protest and died from her injuries.

In 2014, Nguyen Van Hai was released from prison and came to the U.S., and was one of the first to greet Tan on her arrival. Phan Thanh Hai remains jailed in Vietnam.

Activists are welcoming Tan's release, but journalist and human rights groups continue to criticize the government in Hanoi for violating individuals’ rights of free speech.

"While we welcome Ta Phong Tan's release from a Vietnam prison, no one should forget that she should have never been detained in the first place for exercising her right to express her views,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch, a non-profit civil rights advocacy organization.

“Ta Phong Tan’s so-called 'crime' was simply blogging about human rights, corruption, governance and other issues that Vietnamese criticize their government about every day – but she had a growing group of followers online, and that influence made Hanoi nervous enough to throw her in prison,” he said.

Many journalists still detained

The Committee to Protect Journalists’ Bob Dietz called the news “gratifying,” but he added that there are more than a dozen journalists still being held in Vietnamese prisons. In 2015, the CPJ ranked Vietnam as the sixth-most censored country in the world, and in 2014 said Vietnam rated fifth-worst for jailing journalists.

"This release continues Vietnam's cynical practice of releasing high profile dissidents from prison directly into forced exile, with immediate departure from the country being the price of their freedom,” HRW’s Phil Robertson told VOA. “By acting to diminish the numbers of its critics one overseas flight [at] a time instead of ensuring that activists like Ta Phong Tan are released unconditionally, Hanoi is providing aura of human rights progress while actually tightening political control."

In 2013, Ta Phong Tan was named a winner of the U.S. State Department’s “International Women of Courage” award. Secretary of State John Kerry said Tan was “an inspiration” to women in Vietnam. She was also one of the women profiled in the State Department's #FreeThe20 campaign that draws attention to the plight of women political prisoners and other prisoners of concern.

Reform of laws

Earlier this week, the chairman of Vietnam’s legislature surprised many by saying his country should clarify its so-called anti-state laws in order to prevent arbitrary arrests that violate human and civil rights.

International rights groups have long criticized Vietnam for using vaguely worded national security laws to silence and imprison critics of the government.

Hundreds of Vietnamese bloggers have launched a campaign calling for reform of some articles of the penal code, which rights advocates say are often used to punish freedom of speech.

In response, Hanoi said it only jails those who violate the laws. Vietnam released over 10,000 convicts in a mass amnesty to mark National Day early this month, but no political prisoners were pardoned.

U.S. relations

Despite improved ties between Hanoi and Washington, U.S. officials say they continue to raise the issue of human rights with Vietnamese officials.

In June, the State Department released its annual human rights report. It cited Vietnam for problems including “severe restrictions on citizens’ political rights,” as well as police attacks and arbitrary arrests and detentions.

“Progress on human rights and the rule of law will provide the foundation for a deeper and more sustainable partnership between the United States and Vietnam,” said Kerry during a visit to Vietnam in August.

This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Vietnamese service.

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    Doug Bernard

    Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.