Vietnam Frees Thousands of Prisoners

The government of Vietnam says it will pardon more than 10,000 prisoners to mark the 60th National Day later this week, the fourth mass release in the past two years. There were no high profile political prisoners released — just as last time — nor were any death-row inmates granted amnesty or a reduction in sentence. But 21 foreigners were on the list of those to be released, along with nearly 30 ethnic minority hill people.

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And I'm Robert Siegel.

The government of Vietnam says it's planning to release several thousand prisoners. The occasion? A holiday, the country's National Day, later this week. NPR's Michael Sullivan reports from Hanoi.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN reporting:

There are no high-profile dissidents on the list, nor were any death row inmates granted amnesty or a reduction in sentence. But 21 foreigners are among those slated for release, as are nearly 30 ethnic minority hill people also known as Montagnards. Many Montagnards followed alongside US soldiers in Vietnam's Central Highlands during the war. Many are Christians, and many say they are persecuted by the government here and often forced from their land. Some of those whose release was announced today had been imprisoned simply for trying to leave Vietnam. Vietnam's Deputy Minister of Public Security Le The Tiem.

Mr. LE THE TIEM (Vietnam, Deputy Minister of Public Security): (Through translator) The number of minority people released is 28. They were imprisoned for illegally leaving the country or attacking police officers carrying out their duties. But those released today had good records while in custody, so they met our criteria for early release.

SULLIVAN: Dozens, maybe hundreds, are still in jail and face long sentences for their alleged participation in anti-government protests. The government says the demonstrations were orchestrated by foreign agitators. The most recent, in the spring of 2004, left at least 10 people dead. Hundreds of Montagnards fled to neighboring Cambodia where they have been living under the protection of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Nearly 200 have been resettled in the US and elsewhere in the past year. Yesterday and today 41 more left Cambodia to be resettled in North Carolina and Texas.

Ms. DEBORAH BACKUS (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Spokesperson): Someone must have a well-founded fear of persecution and if they do not they are not considered a refugee and these people do.

SULLIVAN: Deborah Backus is the UNHCR spokesperson in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.

Ms. BACKUS: They'll be headed to the US and also a lot of them are going to be rejoining family members that have been in the US for quite a while. We have a young mother and two daughters today that will be seeing their husband for the first time in over a year. So it's a really positive thing that's going on, and they're really excited about it.

SULLIVAN: There are more than 300 Montagnards under UN protection in Cambodia who are hoping for resettlement soon. Nearly 100 who did not qualify were forcibly returned to Vietnam last month. Vietnamese authorities insist none will be punished except, they say, for those who organized their illegal flight. Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Hanoi.

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