Vietnam released one of the country's longest serving prisoners of conscience on Friday, two days before President Barack Obama’s arrival for a state visit.
Family members of dissident Catholic priest Nguyen Van Ly, who has spent much of the last two decades either in jail or under house arrest for advocating democratic reforms in the Southeast Asian country, confirmed his release, which occurred around 8 a.m. local time.
"He returned to the mother diocese on Friday morning," Ly's sister, Nguyen Thi Hieu, told VOA. "On our visit [with] him in jail three weeks ago, he told us he would return on August 10 when he finishes his 8-year sentence."
She added that the family had no prior notification of his early release and suspects the sudden leniency was part of Hanoi's effort to build good credit on its human rights record ahead of Obama's visit.
The United States has been reviewing its current arms transfer policy to determine if a full lifting of the arms embargo on Vietnam would better reflect current relations between the two countries, but the country's human rights record has been a sticking point between the governments.
"His health condition is not too bad now, and he is now still subjected to a 5-year house arrest as indicated in the 2007 verdict," Hieu added.
On Friday afternoon, the website of Ly's archdiocese posted several photos of the aging priest returning home.
Ly was jailed three times for a total of 14 years before his fourth and latest imprisonment in March 2007, when he was charged for spreading propaganda against the communist state.
He gained prominence with his anti-government actions, including hunger strikes and several widely circulated missives calling for a multi-party system.
Also on Friday, jailed Vietnamese dissident Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, a young businessman-turned-activist serving a 16-year sentence on charges of sedition, said that he has decided to go on a "hunger strike until death" starting on May 24 to demand rule of law and a nationwide referendum on Vietnam’s political system.
According to Tran Huynh Duy Tan, Thuc’s brother, the jailed activist turned down recent government offers to leave the country ahead of Obama's visit.
"Thuc vows to stay in the country to fight for human rights and democracy till his last breath," he told the Vietnam-based Youth Magazine. "He told our dad he would stay in Vietnam rather than to go into exile to keep fighting for democracy for the country. He told our dad, ‘I love our family but I love Vietnam more than that much. If this is my destiny, I’ll die for this cause.’"
Tan also expressed hope that Obama's visit would send a clear message that the United States stands with Vietnamese who fight for freedom and show Hanoi that human rights is key to tightening Vietnam-U.S. relations
"Until there are no prisoners of conscience in Vietnam, the country should be kept on the world list of worst repressors on human rights," said Tan.
This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Vietnamese Service.