A mass amnesty of prisoners announced by Vietnam includes a Hmong Protestant leader whose release had been sought by the United States.  Meanwhile, the wife of another dissident said he is seriously ill after several years in prison. 

Ambassador Michael Marine is applauding the amnesty of Ma Van Bay, a Protestant pastor and member of the Hmong ethnic minority.  Bay had been listed as a "prisoner of concern" by the U.S. government.

Ambassador Marine says once Bay is released, Marine all those the United States lists as prisoners of concern in Vietnam will be out of prison.

"He is the last of the specific prisoners of concern who were in jail," he noted.  "There are a number of others whose activities and movements are limited by the Vietnamese government, and we would urge that those individuals be treated like any other Vietnamese citizen."

Bay converted to Christianity in the early 1990s and became a leader among Hmong Protestant communities in the Northern and Central Highlands.  In 2003, he was convicted of damaging Vietnam's national unity policy, a phrase the government uses to describe proselytizing and political activism among ethnic minorities.

Political dissident Pham Hong Son was also included in Monday's amnesty announcement.  Son had been imprisoned largely for posting an essay about democracy on the Internet.

Marine said the amnesties were part of a gradual loosening of political restrictions in Vietnam.

"The release of these two individuals is indicative of the trend in Vietnam to allow for some space for political discussions," he added.

Since 2004, the State Department has designated Vietnam a "country of particular concern" (CPC) for religious freedom issues. The status comes up for review in September, and Marine said that with all the religious prisoners of concern now freed, Vietnam might be taken off the CPC list.

It is not clear how soon Son and Bay would be released.  Son's wife, Vu Thuy Ha, said he was in very poor health after three years in prison.

"I visit[ed] him in prison last August 4," she said.  "At that date he [was] not very well.  He [is] still coughing out blood."

Son still faces three years of travel restrictions, and possibly house arrest.  His wife said she will spend that time concentrating on improving his health, and was glad he is to be freed.