Vietnam frees high-profile dissident lawyer

Vietnam frees high-profile dissident lawyer
Anti-China protesters hold placards with images of activists Dinh Dang Dinh (L), Le Quoc Quan (3rd L), blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh (2nd R) and writer Nguyen Xuan Nghia (R) , as they gather at a park in front of the Chinese embassy in Hanoi May 9, 2014.
PHOTO: Reuters

HANOI - One of Vietnam's most prominent dissidents vowed to continue his anti-China activism after being released from prison on Saturday, after spending two and a half years in jail on tax evasion charges.

Le Quoc Quan, a Catholic blogger and lawyer, said he was released from prison in central Quang Nam province early Saturday and met by his family and supporters.

"I am very happy," he told AFP in his first interview after being released, adding that he planned to head to a hospital for a health check and then spend time with his loved ones.

The 43-year-old lawyer said he had been on hunger strike five times in prison, most recently a 14-day stint ending June 24.

He said he planned to continue the anti-Beijing activism that initially attracted the ire of authorities, adding he was looking forward to reading up on news after being cut off from the world in prison.

Quan, who blogged on a range of sensitive topics including civil rights, political pluralism and religious freedom, has been in detention since December 2012.

His October 2013 conviction on the tax evasion charges was condemned by the United States and denounced by rights campaigners as politically motivated.

A photo posted on Facebook by Quan's brother Le Quoc Quyet Saturday showed a thin but healthy looking Quan smiling and hugging his wife. It attracted hundreds of likes and comments within an hour.

Quan has always denied the charges against him. He told AFP Saturday that his imprisonment was "a miscarriage of justice" and that he would work to help others in similar positions who were "still suffering in jail".

The US had strongly criticised Quan's sentencing and conviction and had repeatedly called on Hanoi to free the Catholic lawyer.

Vietnam, a one-party state, is regularly denounced by rights groups and Western governments for its intolerance of political dissent and systematic violations of freedom of religion.

But as Hanoi seeks closer diplomatic and trade ties with former wartime foe America to counter Beijing's increasingly assertive behaviour in the South China Sea, it appears to have toned down persecution of domestic critics.

Vietnam is part of the ongoing negotiations over the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a huge Pacific-wide free trade deal advocated primarily by the United States. The ruling Communist Party's Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong will travel to the US next month, the first such visit by a party leader.

The US has hailed "progress" on rights issues in Vietnam, saying the number of prisoners of conscience is down from more than 160 in 2013 to around 100 now, and pointing to "virtually no" prosecutions for peaceful political activism or expression this year.

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