Vietnam has released two more high-profile dissidents in an unusual move that comes as the country is negotiating a free-trade deal with Washington that may not get congressional approval unless Hanoi shows it is improving its human rights record.
Vi Duc Hoi and Nguyen Tien Trung were released over the weekend with one year and nine months left of their sentences to serve.
They were each convicted of crimes relating to their peaceful advocacy for multiparty democracy in Vietnam, which is ruled by an authoritarian government that does not allow freedom of expression or political assembly.
“It was due to international pressure that the government of Vietnam had to release me,” Hoi, a former member of the ruling communist party, told Radio Free Asia, a US government-funded media network.
“I lost some weight, but I am still OK physically and mentally,” he said.
Earlier this month, prominent activist Cu Huy Ha Vu was released and went direct from jail to the US, which had been privately negotiating for his release.
A photograph widely distributed on Facebook shows him at a US airport flicking a “V-for-victory” sign.
A US diplomat posted at the embassy in Hanoi was alongside him in the picture.
Human Rights Watch Asia director Phil Robertson said that the two men should never have been imprisoned in the first place.
“There are still hundreds more political prisoners languishing in Vietnam’s prisons, so there is a very long way to go before we can say that Vietnam is making any sort of appreciable progress on human rights,” he said.
US President Barack Obama’s administration is seeking to conclude a trade deal with Vietnam and 10 other Asia-Pacific nations that is seen as vital to boosting US exports in fast-growing markets and demonstrating US economic leadership in a region where China’s influence is ever gaining.
The 12 nations, including Japan, failed to complete the deal by year’s end as hoped, but have since restarted negotiations and hope to conclude soon.
Vietnam’s leaders, mindful of the country’s stumbling economy, want to join the pact because it will boost exports and create jobs.
The US is seeking to use the prospect of the deal to try and win some concessions on human rights.
Representatives of Obama’s administration have said publicly the US Congress, which must vote on the trade pact before it can become binding, might balk at doing so unless Vietnam was able to show progress such as releasing dissidents.