Washington (AFP) - Vietnam has freed a leading dissident whose case was raised by US President Barack Obama, and he was due to arrive late Tuesday in the United States, an American official said.
The news comes only weeks after Washington partially lifted a 40-year ban on arms sales to Hanoi, citing some "modest" progress in human rights as one of the reasons for reviewing a prohibition in place since the Vietnam War.
Nguyen Van Hai, one of Vietnam's most prominent bloggers, has chosen to move to the United States, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters.
Hai, alias Dieu Cay, was sentenced to 12 years in September 2012 by a court in southern Vietnam on charges of "anti-state propaganda." Two other bloggers received jail terms of 10 years and four years.
"We welcome the decision by Vietnamese authorities to release this prisoner of conscience," Harf told reporters.
"He decided to travel to the United States after his release from prison and will arrive on Tuesday, October 21. That's today."
In May 2012, Obama said the world "must not forget (journalists) like blogger Dieu Cay, whose 2008 arrest coincided with a mass crackdown on citizen journalism in Vietnam."
Hai, who went on hunger strike at least twice to protest his jailing, has been in detention since September 2008, after first being sentenced to two-and-a-half years for tax fraud.
The charges of conducting propaganda against Vietnam's one-party communist state are routinely used to prosecute dissidents in a country that rights groups say is conducting a growing crackdown against freedom of expression.
Harf renewed US calls for the release of all Vietnamese political prisoners, adding she hoped more would follow.
- Deported -
Hai's former wife, Duong Thi Tan, told Radio Free Asia however that he was not given any choice, but was taken straight from his jail cell to the airport and put on a plane to the United States.
"Hai could not call us at home," she said. "In fact, they did not let the family know anything about his release. There was no signal or notice. They deported him to exile, they did not release him just like what they said."
New York-based Human Rights Watch had expressed concern over the health of Hai, who was a founding member of the banned "Free Journalists Club."
Last year he refused to eat for 25 days until his complaints about his treatment and that of other political prisoners were looked into.
Dozens of peaceful political activists have been jailed since Vietnam began a new crackdown on dissent in late 2009. Vietnam bans private media, and all newspapers and television channels are state-run.
But earlier this month, the US partly lifted its ban on arms sales to its former foe to help boost defenses in the tense South China Sea.
Some 40 percent of the world's seaborne trade passes through the sea, which is claimed in part by Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia, as well as China and the Philippines.
At the time State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said: "Vietnam will need to make additional progress on human rights for the United States to consider a full lift of the ban on lethal defense articles in the future."
State Department officials have presented a list of dissidents to Hanoi whose cases they are closely monitoring. They said that, in the past months, 11 dissidents had been freed.
They included French-trained lawyer Cu Huy Ha Vu, the son of a Vietnamese revolutionary leader, who was sentenced in April 2011 to seven years in prison for "anti-state activity."
Vu's release in April came after intense campaigning by rights groups and foreign governments. He and his wife flew to the United States, and he is currently pursuing a fellowship at the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy.