Nguyen Van Hai, a Vietnamese blogger whose sentence was suspended, said his country’s push to improve ties with the U.S. will lead to more critics of the communist government being released and boost freedom of speech.
Hai, who is known as Dieu Cay, was handed a 12-year jail sentence in 2012 for spreading anti-government propaganda. He was released on Oct. 21 as a result of an agreement between the U.S. and Vietnam, he said in a telephone interview. Hai was taken directly to Hanoi’s Noi Bai International Airport from prison and boarded a flight for Hong Kong and then Los Angeles.
Nguyen Van Hai
Vietnam’s government will probably release more prisoners such as Hai as a sign of goodwill as it negotiates free trade agreements with the U.S., European Union and other countries, he said. Releases could also occur as a result of Vietnam developing closer relations with the U.S. amid territorial disputes with China, Hai, 62, said.
“In order to reach those agreements, such as TPP or the FTA with the EU, at the end of this year, they will probably release some more people,” he said, referring to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. “They need to build trust. Releasing these dissidents would show an improvement in human rights.”
The number of Vietnamese incarcerated for criticizing their government has decreased, U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Lisa Wishman said in an e-mail. She did not provide estimates of how many remain in jail. There are more than 150 dissidents being detained in Vietnam, according to Human Rights Watch.
Vietnam’s government should “release unconditionally all prisoners of conscience and allow all Vietnamese to express their political views without fear of retribution,” Wishman said in an Oct. 22 statement in Hanoi.
Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to an e-mail request for comment.
There are no “prisoners of conscience” in Vietnam, Pham Thu Hang, deputy spokeswoman in Vietnam’s foreign ministry, said by e-mail Oct. 22. The government “decided to temporarily suspend Nguyen Van Hai’s jail term and allow Nguyen Van Hai to emigrate to the U.S. for humanitarian reasons,” she said.
Hai ran afoul of Vietnamese authorities for criticizing China’s claims to the contested Paracel Islands and calling for a boycott of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, he said. Hai was initially arrested in 2008 on charges of tax evasion, he said.
Vietnam is looking for help from other powers to counter China’s military might as both countries compete for oil, gas and fish in the South China Sea. Skirmishes between boats and deadly anti-Chinese riots occurred in Vietnam after China placed an oil rig off Vietnam’s coast in May.
Earlier this month U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told Vietnam Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh that Vietnam will be able to buy non-lethal weapons from the U.S. after the partial lifting of an arms embargo in place since 1984.
Vietnam is also looking to free trade agreements, such as TPP, to bolster an economy that the World Bank estimates will grow 5.4 percent this year, a seventh year of expansion below 7 percent, and lessen its economic reliance on China. The government aims for domestic investment to reach 30 percent of gross domestic product in 2015, about the same level as this year, even as it takes steps to resolve bad debt at banks and privatize state firms, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung told lawmakers on Oct. 20.
“To create trust with Western countries, Vietnam has to create democracy within Vietnam,” Hai said, speaking from his new home in Los Angeles. After trade and other agreements are signed, Vietnam could “crack down” again on those who speak out against the government, he said.
Since the clash between Vietnam and China during the summer over the Chinese oil rig in the South China Sea, Vietnamese have more leeway to criticize the country’s powerful communist neighbor, he said.
“The media can freely write about anti-China sentiment,” Hai said.
Social media sites like Facebook Inc. (FB) are giving Vietnamese an unprecedented ability to speak freely, he said.
“This has created a new media frontier that is stronger and more widespread,” Hai said. “Social networks are like a land of freedom that is difficult for the government to take control of.”
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