October 17, 2018 / 9:49 AM / a month ago

Freed Vietnamese dissident 'Mother Mushroom' arrives in U.S. - sources

(Reuters) - The Vietnamese dissident known as “Mother Mushroom” has arrived in the United States after she was released from prison, sources with direct knowledge of the matter said.

Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, one of Vietnam’s most prominent dissidents, landed in Houston late on Wednesday, a source told Reuters. Earlier in the day, she was released from a Vietnamese prison where she had been serving a 10-year sentence for anti-state propaganda.

“Mother Mushroom departed Vietnam today for the United States,” one source told Reuters earlier. “She is flying with her children and mother.”

The U.S. State Department said it welcomed the decision by Vietnam to release Quynh and said she and her had family decided to travel to the United States.

“In prior conversations Ms Quynh and her family clearly stated to U.S. officials that she wanted to come to the United States if released from prison,” a spokeswoman for the department said.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) advocacy group quoted an email from a friend of Quynh’s family as saying she was scheduled to arrive in Houston, Texas, on Thursday with her two children and mother and plans to live in exile in the U.S. city.

The CPJ attached a photograph of a smiling Quynh and her two children aboard a plane, which it said was bound for the United States.

“We are greatly pleased that Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh is finally free, but strongly reiterate that she never should have been imprisoned in the first place,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative.

There was no immediate comment from Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry.

News of the release came shortly after U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis left Vietnam. It was not known if the release had any connection with his visit. Mattis arrived there on Tuesday and left for Singapore on Wednesday.

A Pentagon spokesman did not immediately comment when asked about the timing of the release.

EXILE

Despite sweeping economic reform in Vietnam, and increasing openness toward social change, Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party does not tolerate criticism that it deems threatens its rule.

A blogger and environmental activist, Quynh was among 13 women to receive an International Women of Courage Award last year. The awards were presented by U.S. first lady Melania Trump.

Quynh was arrested for posting what police described as anti-state reports, including one about civilians dying in police custody.

Last year, she was jailed for 10 years for publishing propaganda against the state, following a surge in a crackdown on dissidents since 2016, when more conservative leaders cemented their power in top party positions.

Quynh is the second dissident released this year. A prominent human rights lawyer, Nguyen Van Dai, was released from prison in June and went to Germany.

The news should serve as a reminder of Vietnam’s worsening record of jailing anyone who criticizes the regime, said Nicholas Bequelin, human rights group Amnesty International’s regional director for east and southeast Asia.

“While Mother Mushroom is no longer imprisoned, the condition for her release was exile,” he added, saying that more than 100 people were languishing in jail because they peacefully spoke their minds, whether in public, on blogs or on Facebook.

Human Rights Watch said Vietnam had adopted a strategy of political repression under which it arrests activists on “bogus” charges, jails them for long terms and then offers a “freedom for exile deal” and claims credit for the release.

“But no one should forget that Vietnam is still one of the most repressive states in Southeast Asia,” the group said.

Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington and Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Robert Birsel and Tom Brown

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