US pressures Vietnam to release dissident priest

July 27, 2011 - 1:35 AM

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — The U.S. government and international rights groups have called on Vietnam to immediately release a dissident priest suffering from a brian tumor who was sent back to prison after being granted more than a year of medical leave.

The U.S. State Department expressed concern for the Rev. Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly, 65, in a statement Tuesday. A day earlier, he was transported from the church he had been staying at in central Hue city to Nam Ha prison in Ba Sao town, outside the northern capital of Hanoi.

"We urge the government of Vietnam to release him immediately," Heide Bronke Fulton, State Department acting deputy spokeswoman, said in the statement. "No individual should be imprisoned for expressing the right to free speech," it added.

In March 2010, Ly, a longtime human rights activist, was released from prison with a brain tumor after suffering three strokes during his three years in custody.

Ly's one-year medical parole expired March 15, and the official Vietnam News Agency reported Tuesday that he continued to distribute anti-communist leaflets and encourage others to demonstrate against the government despite being warned many times that he was breaking the law.

"The continued imprisonment of Nguyen Van Ly is necessary (and) completely in accordance with the law and supported by the majority of people," it said.

Communist Vietnam does not tolerate any challenge to its one-party rule. Publicly calling for a multiparty system or speaking out against the government can result in long prison sentences.

Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International strongly condemned Ly's imprisonment and demanded his release.

"Throwing Father Ly back in prison only compounds the cruelty and injustice of his original sentence," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "Father Ly was convicted solely for expressing peaceful political beliefs and should never have been imprisoned in the first place."

Ly, who uses crutches to walk, was in "normal health condition" after making the 300-mile (500-kilometer) trip from Hue to the prison, according to a prison official who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing policy.

He has spent more than 16 years in jail, most recently for helping found a group called Bloc 8406, which promotes multiparty democracy.

In 2007, Ly was sentenced to eight years in prison for disseminating anti-government propaganda. During the dramatic trial, an officer clamped his hand over Ly's mouth to stop him from shouting anti-communist slogans and accusing Vietnamese authorities of practicing "the law of the jungle."

Last year, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention also called for Ly's release after determining that he was not given a fair trial and was being imprisoned without cause. It said Ly had been held in solitary confinement in a small room with no bed since his 2007 conviction, adding that he had no access to books and was denied a Bible.

Several members of the U.S. Congress have repeatedly called for Ly's release, including a letter signed by 37 senators appealing directly to Vietnam's president two years ago.

Earlier this year, the U.S. strongly protested the treatment of an American diplomat who was roughed up by police while trying to visit Ly in Hue.