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ICC NOTE: In what was likely a move to divert U.S. attention on Vietnam’s human rights blunders, the Vietnamese government released 70 year old Catholic priest  Nguyen Van Ly as a sign of  “good faith”. Likely though the move was for propaganda purposed as the decision by the U.S. to lift the weapons embargo on Vietnam was predicated by the nation’s actions. However, the embargo was lifted despite any real changes to its porous human rights record due to the rise of China in the South China Sea. At the moment the fate of countless Vietnamese pastors, church leaders, and their families remain in limbo as to whether they will be freed or remain in prison for trumped up charges. 

5/23/2016 Vietnam (VOA) – In an apparent goodwill gesture ahead of President Barack Obama’s state visit to Vietnam, Hanoi released a 70-year-old Catholic priest and prisoner of conscience on Friday as human rights activists urged Obama not to overlook their cause in his meetings next week.

Catholic Priest Nguyen Van Ly was tried in 2007 and convicted on charges of conducting “propaganda against the state” and sentenced to eight years in prison and five years on probation for violating Vietnam’s notorious Article 88 of the penal code.

His release was announced by the Catholic Archdiocese of Hue. Catholic Priest Phan Vam Loi told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that nearly two decades in prison had taken their toll.

“I noticed that his health was deteriorating. He was very thin and did not look as good as before,” Phan Vam Loi said. “He could not stand straight. He was hunched when walking. That was the destruction of eight years in prison.”

Ly’s latest stint in jail was not his first. As the co-founder of Bloc 8406, a coalition of Vietnamese political groups that advocates for democratic reforms, he has been targeted for some time. He was arrested in 1977, 2001, and 2007 for various crimes against the state.

While prison has taken its physical toll, Ly is apparently unbowed.

“Spiritually, he was still bright and determined,” Phan Vam Loi told RFA. “He said that they should not let any policeman or security people guard or monitor him at the church. He said by doing that they invite him to continue his fight.”

Gift for Obama

Nguyen Van Ly is also under no illusions as to why he was released, Phan Vam Loi said.

“They told Ly that this is a pardon from the state’s president, but Ly told them that this is not a pardon but a gift to the U.S. before the U.S.  president visits Vietnam,” Phan Vam Loi told RFA. “Besides I’m not guilty so you can’t pardon me,” Loi quoted Ly as saying.

Nguyen Van Ly’s release highlights a key conflict Obama faces in Vietnam.

As ties between the two former enemies grow closer, Vietnam’s wish to keep China contained in the South China Sea dovetails neatly with the U.S. desire to ensure the vital seaway stays open.

While Vietnam wants the U.S. to eliminate its arms embargo against the country, and Washington seems willing to approve more arms sales, Obama also wants to Hanoi to undertake human rights reforms.

White House officials say that during the visit that officially starts on Monday, Obama will meet Vietnam’s new president, Tran Dai Quang, as well as its new prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, and Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong.

While he will also meet with top government officials, Obama is also scheduled to meet with dissidents and deliver a speech to the Vietnamese people.

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