HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Vietnam has granted early release to two high-profile dissidents, bringing the number of democracy activists freed this month to three in what the government called a "policy of leniency."
The unusual moves come as Hanoi is negotiating a free trade deal with the United States that is expected to help Vietnam's stumbling economy.
American officials have said the deal might not get congressional approval unless Vietnam's government shows it is taking steps to improve its human rights record.
Vi Duc Hoi and Nguyen Tien Trung were released over the weekend with 1½ years and nine months remaining of their sentences respectively.
They were convicted of crimes relating to their peaceful advocacy of multiparty democracy in Vietnam, ruled by an authoritarian government that doesn't allow freedom of expression or political assembly.
"It was due to international pressure that the government of Vietnam had to release me," Hoi, a former member of the ruling Communist Party, told Radio Free Asia, a U.S. government-funded network. "I lost some weight but I am still OK physically and mentally."
Phil Robertson, Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said the two men should never have been imprisoned.
"There are still hundreds more political prisoners languishing in Vietnam's prisons, so there is a very long way to go before we can say that Vietnam is making any sort of appreciable progress on human rights," he said.
Earlier this month, another prominent activist, Cu Huy Ha Vu, was released and went directly from jail to the United States, which had been negotiating for his release. He was four years into a seven-year sentence. A photo widely distributed on Facebook shows him at an American airport giving a V-for-victory sign. A U.S. diplomat posted at the embassy in Hanoi is next to him in the picture.
Foreign Affairs Ministry deputy spokeswoman Nguyen Thi Thai Thong said the releases were the result of a "policy of leniency" by Vietnamese President Truoung Tan Sang. She said Vu traveled to the United States for humanitarian reasons, but gave no more details.
Two people with knowledge of the negotiations said Vu's release was dependent on him leaving for the United States. They didn't give their names because they were not authorized to speak to the media about it.
The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi issued a statement welcoming the release of the two, saying they were a positive development for human rights in Vietnam.
"We encourage the government to release unconditionally all prisoners of conscience and allow all Vietnamese to express their views without fear of retribution," said embassy spokesman Spencer Cryder.
Activists and diplomats monitoring the human rights situation said the government appears to be trying to avoid high-profile trials of dissidents by not charging as many, but that harassment and sometimes-violent attacks on activists are increasing.
The Obama administration is seeking to conclude a trade deal with Vietnam and 10 other Asia-Pacific nations aimed at boosting American exports to fast-growing markets and demonstrating U.S. economic leadership in a region in which China's influence is gaining.
Vietnam's leaders, mindful of the country's struggling economy, want to join the pact because it will boost exports and create jobs.
The United States is seeking to use the prospect of the deal to win some concessions on human rights. Representatives of the Obama administration have said the U.S. Congress, which must vote on the trade pact before it can become binding, might balk at doing so unless Vietnam is able to show progress, such as releasing dissidents.
Ahead of Vietnam's succession to the World Trade Organization in 2006, it also faced pressure to show improvement in human rights, especially from American lawmakers. The country released a few dissidents and joined the trade body, but the progress was short-lived.