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Vietnam Releases Prominent Dissident to the United States

By Tini Tran
Los Angeles Times
HANOI, Vietnam

Vietnam's most prominent political dissident was headed to the United States Tuesday after being released under a government amnesty program announced last week, while a human rights group reported the release of a prominent Buddhist monk and scholar.

Journalist Doan Viet Hoat boarded a plane for Bangkok, Thailand, and hoped to reunite with family members in Minnesota this week. Thich Tri Sieu, of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, reportedly was freed Tuesday.

Vietnamese officials had announced Friday that Hoat, along with fellow political dissident Nguyen Dan Que, would be released as part of a general amnesty for 5,219 prisoners to coincide with the country's anniversary of independence Wednesday. .

Hoat told reporters in Bangkok Tuesday that he was forced to leave his homeland. "I regret that they don't let me stay in Vietnam," he said. "I don't want to leave my country. I love my country. I want to contribute to freedom and democracy."

Hoat and Que have been accepted for resettlement in the United States, according to U.S. Embassy officials in Hanoi. Que was released to family members in Vietnam. It was unclear whether he would leave for the United States.

Though international observers lauded the releases, they cautioned that it is premature to consider the move a sign that the Communist government has eased restrictions on political and religious freedom.

"This amnesty should be seen as a very significant step by the Vietnamese authorities, but it's still too early to say whether this was a one-time gesture or whether it marks a real change in human rights policy," said Demelza Stubbings of Amnesty International.

In its latest report, the group estimates that at least 49 prisoners of conscience are being held by Vietnam. Sieu was arrested in 1984 along with Buddhist scholar Thich Tue Sy and 10 other monks and nuns from the United Buddhist Church. Sieu and Sy received death sentences in 1988 on charges of trying to overthrow the government, but after international protests both sentences were commuted to 20 years in prison.

Officials at the Foreign Ministry this week reiterated their claim that Vietnam has no prisoners being held for their political or religious beliefs. Amnesty was granted to inmates who had shown good behavior and had served at least a third of their sentences, the officials said.

"There are only prisoners who were punished for criminal violations," government spokeswoman Phan Thuy Thanh said.

Human rights groups had been lobbying for several years on behalf of Hoat and Que, who have won international citations for their human rights work.

Both cases were cited by the European Parliament in a July 16 resolution condemning the two dissidents' sentences. The cases also were brought up during U.S. congressional hearings early this summer by Vietnamese-American groups opposed to establishing closer trade ties with Vietnam.