HANOI, Vietnam – A Vietnamese appeals court overturned a six-year prison sentence against a dissident and halved the jail term of another in a rare show of leniency by the country's Communist authorities.
The decision followed meetings last month between President Barack Obama and Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang. Obama pressed Vietnam to take concrete steps to improve its human rights record — a major sticking point in ties between the two countries.
Nguyen Phuong Uyen, 21, was convicted of violating national security laws in May for distributing leaflets against the Communist Party and sentenced to six years. The appeals court on Friday changed that sentence to a 3-year suspended one and released her. It halved the eight-year sentence against fellow activist, 25-year-old Dinh Nguyen Kha.
Their lawyer Nguyen Thanh Luong said judges cited their young age in the decision.
He said he believed it was the first time that an appeals court had freed someone convicted of a national security crime.
"This is a positive sign, and this should be encouraged," Luong said Saturday.
Vietnam's Communist leaders have delivered rising living standards and security to the country of 90 million people since embracing economic reforms in the 1980s. But they do not allow any challenge to their one-party rule and routinely arrest critics.
The rapid spread of the Internet in the country in the last five years has opened new avenues for dissent. This is alarming the government, which previously had a monopoly over most information. At least 46 people, many of them bloggers, have been convicted and sentenced for dissident activities this year.
In a statement, Human Rights Watch said international pressure likely played a part in the appeal court's decision.
"This shows that sustained pushing on human rights in Vietnam can have positive results," said the group's Asia director, Phil Robertson. "The international community should learn from this experience and re-double their efforts to demand Vietnam respect the civil and political rights of its people."