HANOI, Feb 1 (AFP) – Vietnam came under renewed pressure over its rights record Tuesday despite announcing the release of a group of dissidents, with critics welcoming the move but saying far more needed to be done to shore up religious and political freedoms in the communist state.
Human rights watchdogs joined the United States, which has labelled Vietnam among the world’s worst offenders on religious freedom, in saying the six prisoners should be allowed to live without fear of further intimidation.
“The Vietnamese have the responsibility to uphold the right of freedom of expression for everyone in Vietnam,” said Amnesty International’s deputy Asia director Natalie Hill, adding many other political and religious prisoners were still serving jail sentences.
“We trust that the fundamental rights of those released will be respected and that they will be allowed to live freely without harassment or intimidation,” she added.
A presidential spokesman in Hanoi said Monday an amnesty of 8,325 prisoners to mark the new year starting on February 8 included “six prisoners sentenced for violating national security”.
Only two names were mentioned by the official — Catholic priest Father Nguyen Van Ly and political dissident Nguyen Dan Que.
The US State Department cited three other names, included Huynh Van Ba alias Thich Thien Minh, a member of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, another political dissident jailed in 1993, Nguyen Dinh Huy, and a member of the Hoa Hao Buddhist sect, Truong Van Duc.
But critics expressed doubt that the releases represented any fundamental change or would guarantee real freedom for the dissidents.
“All we can do is hope they will be left alone,” said Jared Genser, president of the US-based organisation Freedom Now, who told AFP that Nguyen Dan Que had already been released and was with his family.
It was not clear if any of the other five had yet been released.
“These cases were considered a barometer of the situation in the country,” Genser said of Father Ly and Que. “Does that mean that the situation has changed overnight ? The answer is no… But this is a step in the right direction.”
Hanoi’s decision came amid ongoing deliberations in Washington as to what sanction to impose on Vietnam after the State Department placed Hanoi in September on its list of the world’s worst offenders on religious freedom.
A decision is due next month.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher urged “the government of Vietnam to permit these and other individuals to express their political views freely and to practice religion peacefully in an atmosphere of tolerance and mutual respect.”
Senator Sam Brownback, who has travelled to Vietnam to push the case of religious detainees said : “While there remain many innocent political prisoners behind bars in Vietnam, this is a positive gesture by the Vietnamese government.”
Other observers suggested the releases were more aimed at improving the regime’s reputation abroad than marking a real political change.
The Paris-based Vietnam Committee on Human Rights, which has repeatedly criticised the communist regime, also asked Hanoi “to ensure all these men would be granted full civil and political rights on their release and be amnestied of their whole prison sentence, including the customary ‘probationary detention’ or house arrest.”
Their release “must not be construed as evidence that all is going well in Vietnam”, the organisation added in a statement.
The comment was echoed by a foreign diplomat in Hanoi who asked not to be named.
“According to our information, the released had to give some assurance to the authorities that they would keep a low profile,” he said.
“The government certainly will not trust them,” he added. “Apart from those who are really old, it is clear that these people will be closely watched.”