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Top US Rights Envoy to Visit Vietnam Ahead of Obama Trip

FILE - Tom Malinowski, a U.S. assistant secretary of state, will urge Hanoi to free political prisoners and will encourage legal reforms related to human rights. (N. Ching/VOA).

The top State Department envoy on human rights will travel to Vietnam next week to pave the way for a visit by President Barack Obama later this month.

Tom Malinowski will urge Hanoi to "release political prisoners without condition and encourage further reforms that will help to make Vietnam's laws consistent with its international human rights obligations," the State Department said in a statement released Friday.

Vietnamese officials have voiced hope that Obama's visit will result in the full relaxation of the "lethal weapons" embargo on the Southeast Asian nation.

The U.S. partially lifted its three-decade ban on lethal arms sales to Vietnam in October 2014, but that move has drawn criticism from various rights groups, including New York-based Human Rights Watch, which has long protested Hanoi's treatment of opposition figures and ethnic and religious minorities.

Hanoi has long denied accusations from human rights organizations regarding media censorship and restriction of Internet access, saying it does not jail dissidents but imprisons only convicted criminals.

The shift in U.S. policy comes at a time of increasingly aggressive Chinese territorial claims to large swaths of the resource-rich South China Sea, where Vietnamese maritime patrols have faced off against Chinese naval forces on several occasions.

The State Department has said that because the U.S. is aware of human rights concerns about Vietnam, all sales will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.