LOS ANGELES (AP) — One of Vietnam's most prominent dissidents said he was asked to sign a form seeking a pardon for spreading "propaganda against the state" before his release from prison last week, then forced onto a U.S.-bound flight with just the clothes on his body.
Nguyen Van Hai, who blogged under the name Dieu Cay, told The Associated Press on Thursday that he refused to sign the document because he didn't believe he had committed a crime.
He said authorities gave him no option but to leave for the United States.
"They rushed me directly from the jail to (Hanoi's) Noi Bai International Airport and escorted me onto the airplane. They didn't allow me to see my family before my departure. So we can't say they released me. If they had given me back my freedom, I could have gone back home instead of going directly to the airport without seeing my family and my friends."
Vietnam's communist government previously said Hai was released for humanitarian reasons.
A State Department spokeswoman said Hai had decided himself to travel to the United States.
Hai, 62, said he wasn't aware of U.S. involvement in his release, other than that the Obama administration was appealing for the release of prisoners of conscience in Vietnam.
Washington has been calling on Vietnam to improve its human rights record to smooth the way for stronger military and economic relations. The U.S., which has a stated commitment to supporting democracy and human rights around the world, wants closer ties with Vietnam as it looks to ramp up America's presence in Southeast Asia and counter an assertive China.
Washington has been intimately involved in negotiations around the early release of other dissidents, but U.S. officials rarely speak about the details publicly. Three dissidents were granted early release in April. One of them, Cu Huy Ha Vu, went directly from jail to the United States accompanied by a U.S. diplomat posted at the embassy in Hanoi.
Hai's release Oct. 21 came on the same day Tom Malinowski, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for human rights, visited Hanoi.
Hai said Hanoi should be congratulated for releasing several political prisoners this year, but questioned its motives.
"I think Hanoi should be encouraged to release political dissidents, but it's unacceptable when they use political prisoners as bargaining chips in diplomatic negotiations," Hai said.
"I hope that all governments (negotiating with Vietnam) put democracy and other civil rights as conditions under which the country should respect and comply with," he added.
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 two hunger strikes against being held under solitary confinement.
He said he shuffled among 11 prisons, where he saw overcrowding, a lack of clean water and poor health care. He said he wasn't allowed visitors or access to media.
Hai said he was able to smuggle a message by a cellmate who is serving a two-year jail sentence for posting online criticism of the government. Truong Duy Nhat, a blogger and former reporter at a state-run newspaper, was convicted of "abusing democratic freedoms" in March.
His message read: "A government needs a critical media, more so than a media that only knows how to praise a government."
Hai was honored last November in the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists' 2013 International Press Freedom Awards.
His ex-wife and two of his children are still in Vietnam and it is not clear whether they will join him. One daughter is in Canada, though Hai said he plans to seek asylum to stay in United States. He said he plans to use his new freedom to promote human rights and freedom of the press inside Vietnam.