- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 1, 2005

Vietnam yesterday freed from prison an outspoken critic of religious persecution whose release had been demanded by U.S. officials and human rights groups.

Catholic priest Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly, 58, walked out of a prison in the northern town of Ba Sao alone and in plain clothes after being fingerprinted, Reuters news agency reported, citing a witness. He was taken to his home in the central province of Thue Thien-Hue in a car hired by the police.

Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican, called the release “a very welcome expression by the government of Vietnam.”

Mr. Smith, who is vice chairman of the House International Relations Committee, however, cautioned that “hopefully it’s the beginning and not just a speed bump on the road of repression” by the communist government in Vietnam.

Father Ly was the fifth prominent political dissident freed this week as part of a group that included Nguyen Dan Que, an advocate of human rights and democracy in Vietnam who had been imprisoned for almost two decades.

Mr. Smith had led a campaign to win the release of the two men.

“The United States welcomes the planned release of these prisoners of conscience,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

“The United States urges the government of Vietnam to permit these and other individuals to express their political views freely and to practice religion peacefully,” he said.

Vietnam denies accusations by activist groups that it represses human rights. Although it formally allows the practice of six religions, including Catholicism, it insists on overseeing all aspects of their operations.

Father Ly was arrested in 2001 after sending testimony to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom criticizing the Vietnamese government’s religious repression.

He was charged with undermining national unity and sentenced to 15 years — later cut to 10 — in the prison 50 miles south of the capital, Hanoi, plus five years of house arrest. His jail term was halved last year when officials cited his “good attitude and conduct.”

Although the releases coincide with the traditional annual amnesty before Lunar New Year celebrations next week, many analysts say international pressure played a large role.

The U.S. government helped “persuade” Vietnamese leaders “that by incarcerating the best and the brightest and the most courageous of Vietnam, they bring dishonor to their government,” Mr. Smith said yesterday.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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