By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 17, 2007
Vietnam will consider releasing from prison a prominent journalist who has been held since 2002, after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice privately raised the case this week, Deputy Prime Minister Pham Gia Khiem said yesterday.
"He was sentenced by the court to seven years in imprisonment, and we would consider providing amnesty," Pham Gia Khiem told Washington Post editors and reporters, speaking through an interpreter. Pham Gia Khiem, who is touring the United States to promote business ties and lay the groundwork for a U.S. visit by Vietnam's president, met with Rice at the State Department on Thursday.
Family members reported last month that the health of the prisoner, Nguyen Vu Binh, 39, has deteriorated so much that he cannot lift his 5-year-old daughter, according to Kristin Jones of the Committee to Protect Journalists. She said he suffers from hypertension, liver disease and other ailments.
A State Department official said Nguyen Vu Binh was the one individual Rice mentioned by name during a discussion of human rights in the one-party-controlled nation. Pham Gia Khiem's "body language was positive" regarding Nguyen Vu Binh, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the diplomatic meeting was private.
"It would be significant if he is released," Jones said, noting that Nguyen Vu Binh was among a group of journalists rounded up in 2002 and is the only one from that crackdown still being held.
A reporter for an official Communist Party publication, Nguyen Vu Binh was arrested in September 2002 after posting articles on the Internet. He was accused of "spying" because he allegedly passed information to overseas Vietnamese groups through the Internet.
He was sentenced to seven years in prison and three years of house arrest. Pham Gia Khiem did not make clear whether the possible amnesty would also cover the house arrest.
Human Rights Watch reported earlier this month that Vietnam -- a fast-growing country that last year achieved its long-sought goal of joining the World Trade Organization -- recently launched one of the worst attacks on dissidents in 20 years, arresting such figures as two prominent human rights lawyers and a Roman Catholic priest.
"Obviously, it is good news that they are releasing Vu Binh," said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. "But there is a revolving-door quality to the releases and the arrests that the State Department should see through."
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said that Rice, in her meeting, "repeated the idea that we want to work with the Vietnamese government in the spirit of respect and constructive dialogue that yields concrete steps that furthers the issue of human rights in Vietnam."
In the interview, Pham Gia Khiem was unapologetic about Vietnam's system of government. He said it took Vietnam a century to throw off the yoke of colonialism and achieve independence. Now, he said, the government has taken responsibility for "clothes and education and food for the people," achieving an annual economic growth rate of 8 percent.
"We encourage people to make themselves rich," he said.
"The law represents the will of the vast majority of the public," Pham Gia Khiem said. "Few people, not more than 1 percent of the people, may not agree with that law or policy, but we need to serve the interests of the majority." He contended that Nguyen Vu Binh "was even opposed by his parents."
Human Rights Watch reported that police last month raided the home of Nguyen Van Ly -- a Catholic priest and one of the founders of "Block 8406," a democracy movement -- and moved him to a remote location, where he remains under house arrest. Pham Gia Khiem denied that the priest had been arrested, saying it was "kind of an administrative management, something like that. . . . But if he continues his violations, he will be arrested."
Pham Gia Khiem referred to Nguyen Van Ly as "Ong Li," using a phrase of respect, but when the interpreter rendered that as "Father Ly," one of the Vietnamese officials present interrupted him, saying, "Not Father." Vietnam does not have diplomatic relations with the Vatican.
Staff writer Ylan Q. Mui contributed to this report.