Tue, Aug 29, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Vietnam said to be ready to release prominent dissident

AFP , HANOI

Vietnam has decided to free prominent dissident and pro-democracy activist Pham Hong Son after more than four years in jail in a move seen as courting Washington's favor, foreign diplomats said yesterday.

Son, a 37-year-old businessman and trained medical doctor, is to be released in the days to come as part of a wide presidential amnesty, several months before the end of his five-year sentence for alleged espionage.

"We have been informed by the Vietnamese authorities that he would be released," a European diplomat said.

Several ethnic minority Montagnards from the troubled Central Highlands will also be released, as well as Ma Van Bay, a protestant ethnic Hmong from northern Ha Giang Province, considered by the US as detained for religious reasons.

Son was arrested in Hanoi on March 27, 2002, a few weeks after translating and publishing online a feature article entitled "What is democracy?" off the US State Department's Web site.

His release follows sustained diplomatic pressure on Vietnam and comes as the communist country is seeking to join the WTO later this year.

Vietnam is expecting the US Congress to grant it Permanent Normal Trade Relations status this year. The nation is also hosting an APEC forum summit in November, with US President George W. Bush to attend.

"The timing is not a coincidence," the European diplomat said.

"There is a clear will for the Vietnamese authorities to influence the political process in the United States," he said. "Vietnam's main purpose is to get rid of the most prominent cases, those who attract the attention of the international community."

Son was charged with spying after communicating with "political opportunists" in Vietnam and overseas and sending anti-government and anti-Communist Party documents abroad, according to state media at the time.

He was sentenced to 13 years' jail in June 2003 despite protesting his innocence. The term was cut to five years on appeal two months later. He then became an icon of dissent in Vietnam, with the US, the EU, Australia and several human rights organizations calling for his release.

According to state media, Vietnam will release 5,352 prisoners under a presidential amnesty for the Sept. 2 national day.

And with the release of protestant Bay, the list of religious prisoners recently handed over to Vietnam by US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom John Hanford, is now empty, diplomats said.

"I would not even start to extrapolate about the changing of the regime," another foreign envoy however noted, asking not to be named.

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