05/21/2016, 09.57
VIETNAM

To please Obama, Hanoi releases Catholic human rights icon Fr. Van Ly

The communist authorities have released the priest in his 70's, leader of the struggle for rights and religious freedom. The years in jail have taken their toll physically, but not on his spirit. He is "bright and determined." Activists say his release is a gift to Obama on the eve of his trip to Vietnam.

Hanoi (AsiaNews) – Hanoi’s Communist authorities have released Nguyen Van Ly, a Catholic priest in his 70s one of the top leaders in the struggle for religious freedom and civil rights in the country. According to some sources, the decision is a "good will" gesture ahead of the official visit of US President Barack Obama May 23 to 25.

In fact several human rights organizations and activists had appealed to the White House to raise the issue of persecution and freedom - and not just the arms trade - during meetings with government leaders.

Fr. Van Ly (pictured) was sentenced March 30, 2007 to eight years in prison and five years of house arrest for violating the notorious Article 88 of the Criminal Code. According to the indictment he led a movement for democracy, called "Bloc 8406", founded in April 2006, with 2 thousand members, and supported illegal groups such as the Progressive Party of Vietnam.

Previously he had already spent 14 years in prison - between 1977 and 2004 - for his battles in defense of religious freedom and human rights in the communist country. The image of the handcuffed priest in the courts, with a policeman muzzling him while he was protesting against the persecutions of the communist regime made him famous worldwide.

In 2009 he was hit by a stroke in prison, which left him semi-paralyzed for some time.

His release was announced by the Archdiocese of Hue. In an interview with Radio Free Asia (RFA), Fr. Phan Loi Vam reports that nearly 20 years of jail have physically marked Fr. Van Ly. "His health - says the priest - has deteriorated. He was very thin and did not look in good condition like before. " "He could not stand up straight - he adds - and walked bent over. These are the results of the last eight years in prison ". However, on a spiritual level  he is still "bright and determined."

In releasing the priest, Hanoi authorities have spoken of a presidential "pardon". In response, Fr. Van Ly said he cannot be pardoned for sins he did not commit. Rather , that his release is a "gift" for Obama, expected in Vietnam next week.

Activists, bloggers and NGOs do not see, a true "sign of change" in the release of the Catholic priest but rather a move that conceals economic, commercial and strategic interests.

In fact, Vietnam has long been at loggerheads with Beijing in the South China Sea, and is in need of the support- including military -  of its historical enemy the United States, to contain China's expansionism in the seas. And Washington can now count, after Manila, on a new strong ally in the Asia-Pacific region.

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