Vietnam frees dissident priest in poor health - group

Mon Mar 15, 2010 9:29pm IST

HANOI (Reuters) - Vietnam freed one of its highest-profile political prisoners on Monday, releasing outspoken Catholic priest Nguyen Van Ly five years before his sentence was up, a U.S.-based advocacy group said.A spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Hanoi said he was aware of reports that Ly had been paroled for medical treatment and said: "If these are true it would be a welcome humanitarian gesture."

A perennial thorn in the side of the ruling Communist Party, Ly has spent some 16 years in prison over the past three decades for advocating greater human rights in the one-party state.

The 63-year-old cleric's latest jail term started in early 2007 when he was sentenced to eight years in prison followed by five years of house arrest for spreading propaganda against the state, but his health deteriorated and last year he suffered two strokes that left him partially paralysed.

Maran Turner, executive director of the rights group Freedom Now, said a nephew of Ly's had told her the priest was released around 4 a.m. on Monday and spent the day driving from Hanoi to his home town of Hue in central Vietnam.

"He spoke to Father Ly this morning. He (Ly) is now back in Hue with his family," she said by telephone from the United States.

She said Ly's health had "deteriorated substantially" during his imprisonment, which included long stretches in solitary confinement, and said it may have been a likely factor in his early release.

There was no immediate explanation of Ly's release from the government and calls to the Foreign Ministry's press office, which handles queries from foreign media, were not answered.

The U.S. and other Western governments have called repeatedly for Ly's release. In July, a group of 37 U.S. senators urged Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet to set the cleric free.

During Ly's four-hour trial in 2007, he was denied access to a lawyer and was silenced by security guards when he attempted to speak, Freedom Now has said. Ly's freedom comes within days of the release of dissident lawyer Le Thi Cong Nhan who served out her three-year sentence. Nhan was also convicted of conducting propaganda against the state, a crime that human rights advocates say the government wields as a tool to silence dissent.

There was no apparent link between the releases of two of the country's best known political prisoners.

In recent months, Vietnamese courts have imprisoned at least 16 people in what some analysts say has been an unusually harsh crackdown on dissent.

(Reporting by John Ruwitch)