WASHINGTON (AP) — The State Department welcomed Tuesday the release of one of Vietnam's most prominent dissidents, as the U.S. urges the authoritarian government in Hanoi to improve its human rights record and smooth the way for stronger relations.
State Department Spokeswoman Marie Harf said Nguyen Van Hai, also known as Dieu Cay, was due to arrive in the U.S. on Tuesday. He had been serving a 12-year prison term for conducting "propaganda against the state" in relation to his blogging and citizen media activities.
In April, another high-profile Vietnamese dissident, Cu Huy Ha Vu, came with his wife to the U.S. after his release by Vietnam. Vu had been a high-profile critic of the ruling party and his father was an associate of former President Ho Chi Minh.
Harf said that Hai had decided himself to travel to the U.S. She urged the release of all other political prisoners in Vietnam.
In Vietnam, Hai's ex-wife, Duong Thi Tan, said his family learned of his release when he called them from Hong Kong while in transit to the U.S. She said they had been prepared for the possibility that he would go to the U.S., but were hoping they would at least have a chance to say goodbye.
The U.S. is forging closer relations with Vietnam as it looks to ramp up America's presence in Southeast Asia and counter an assertive China. This month, the U.S. announced it was partially lifting its ban on sales of weaponry to Vietnam to help its maritime security. Vietnam is also one of 12 nations involved in negotiations on a U.S.-backed trans-Pacific trade pact.
U.S. officials have cited some signs of improvement in Vietnam's human rights record, but Amnesty International says scores are still being detained for exercising their right to freedom of expression in the one-party state.
Hai was the co-founder of the Club for Free Journalists, which was established to promote independent journalism. He was first detained in 2007 as a result of his political views. His 12-year prison term began in September 2012, and he later went on hunger strike to protest his solitary confinement.
Hai was honored last November in the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists' 2013 International Press Freedom Awards.
His release comes ahead of visit to Vietnam starting Wednesday by Tom Malinowski, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for human rights. Malinowski will discuss with government officials and civil society the importance of "demonstrable progress" on human rights to further U.S.-Vietnam ties on security assistance and economic cooperation, the State Department said.
Associated Press writer Minh V. Tran in Hanoi, Vietnam, contributed to this report.