Father Nguyen Van Ly released before Obama visit

Father Nguyen Van Li is greeted by colleagues at the Arch-diocese in Hue

Father Nguyen Van Li is greeted by colleagues at the Archdiocese in Hue

Vietnam has released one of its longest serving political prisoners just three days before President Obama is due to make his first visit to the country.

Father Nguyen Van Ly was greeted by church members in Hue after being freed from jail in the north of the country.

He has spent much of the last two decades in jail or under house arrest. He has long been a focus of international pressure on Vietnam over human rights.

Nguyen Van Ly’s latest sentence began in 2007 when he was convicted of conducting propaganda against the state.

He was accused of involvement in the organisation of “Bloc 8406”, a pro-democracy movement that led to a harsh crackdown from the communist authorities nearly a decade ago.

Intolerance of dissent

Father Ly, now in his 70s, is seen as an inspirational figure by human rights campaigners and pro-democracy activists.

His persecution over many years became a symbol of the one-party state’s intolerance of dissent and disregard for its own commitments on human rights.

US officials have repeatedly called on Vietnam to release prisoners of conscience.

Senior diplomats from the state department visited Hanoi in advance of President Obama’s visit to seek concessions on human rights.

About one hundred political prisoners, including independent bloggers and human rights lawyers, remain in detention.

President Obama is visiting Vietnam for the first time, in the closing months of his second administration, to put the seal on a developing strategic partnership with Hanoi.

Vietnam enthusiastically signed up to the Trans-Pacific Partnership at the conclusion of negotiations late last year, and both countries have an interest in containing the growing belligerence of China in the South China sea.

President Obama is under pressure to lift what remains of a ban on arms sales to Vietnam, with the Pentagon openly backing an end to an embargo that dates from the Vietnam war.

However, some congressmen, as well as many activists in Vietnam, argue the move would be premature given the high level of political repression that continues in the country.

Dissidents are routinely harassed, threatened and beaten by the authorities and can be arrested at any time on a range of charges designed to stifle criticism of the communist system.