HANOI, Vietnam (AP) - A U.S.-trained human rights lawyer has been released early from a Vietnamese prison even as the Communist government intensifies its crackdown on activists and bloggers it sees as challenging one-party rule.
Le Cong Dinh was freed Wednesday for his "good abidance by prison rules," the online newspaper VnExpress reported. The Foreign Ministry confirmed the early release Thursday in a brief statement to The Associated Press.
Dinh had handled high-profile human rights cases and once represented Vietnamese fish farmers fighting a trade complaint brought by U.S. catfish growers. He also called for political pluralism within Vietnam and spoke critically of neighboring China's claims to disputed islands in the South China Sea.
He was arrested in 2009 and sentenced to five years in prison for conspiring to overthrow the government. He served a total three and a half years, since his sentence had already been reduced twice.
Dinh, 44, studied law at Tulane University in Louisiana on a Fulbright scholarship and later was vice chairman of the Ho Chi Minh City Bar Association.
His release comes as Vietnam's crackdown on dissent has intensified, with 35 activists given lengthy jail terms over the past month for subversion.
"We welcome the decision by Vietnamese authorities to grant humanitarian release to lawyer Le Cong Dinh," U.S. Embassy spokesman Christopher Hodges said. "Human rights continue to be a fundamental part of our bilateral engagement with Vietnam, including advocating for the release of all political prisoners."
Western governments have criticized Vietnam for jailing people for peacefully expressing their views. Hanoi maintains that only lawbreakers are locked up.
An annual dialogue on human rights between the U.S. and Vietnam was not held in 2012, underscoring how Vietnam's worsening treatment of dissidents over the last two years has complicated efforts to strengthen ties with its former wartime adversary. The crackdown has followed a downturn in Vietnam's once-robust economy.
Last week, Vietnam released Nguyen Quoc Quan, an American citizen who was arrested at Ho Chi Minh City's airport in April after arriving on a flight from the United States. Quan is a member of Viet Tan, a nonviolent pro-democracy group that Vietnam has labeled a terrorist outfit.
Quan said he smuggled out of Vietnam a petition by the blogger Nguyen Van Hai, known as Dieu Cay or "Tobacco Pipe," who received a 12-year sentence in September on charges of spreading "propaganda against the state."
Hai is a founding member of the "Free Journalists' Club," a group of citizen journalists who posted their work on the Internet. A judge upheld the sentence in late December.
Hai's petition says his September trial in Ho Chi Minh City was not fair, open, independent or non-biased.
"It has broken Vietnam's image as a law-abiding state in the eyes of international friends," Hai wrote, according to a copy of his petition given to the Associated Press by Viet Tan.
Reached by email Friday, Quan said Hai's ideas "cannot be confined within the walls of a prison cell."
"I felt the world has to know that Vietnam's prisoners of conscience are enduring, even in prison," Quan said. He declined to say how he smuggled Hai's petition out of the country.