Vietnam on Saturday freed two prominent dissidents following international pressure on the one party communist state to improve its human rights record.
Pro-democracy activist Nguyen Tien Trung and writer and blogger Vi Duc Hoi were released after serving up to nearly five years in prison and prior to completion of their full sentences, family members said.
Trung, 31, was arrested in July 2009 and sentenced the next year to seven years in prison on charges of attempting to "overthrow the government" by supporting the formation of an opposition party to the ruling Vietnam Communist Party.
Hoi, 57, a former member of the Communist Party, was arrested in October 2010 and sentenced the next year to eight years in prison — which was later reduced to five years — for "conducting propaganda" against the government, based on his articles and internet postings advocating human rights and democratic reforms.
"I lost some weight but I am still OK physically and mentally," Hoi told RFA's Vietnamese Service on his release Saturday morning.
Hoi, who remains critical of the government, said foreign pressure had forced the authorities to release him before his five-year prison term was up.
"It was due to international pressure that the government of Vietnam had to release me. It is not due to any health problem," he said.
"I may have been imprisoned but I still know what is going on. This government has no mercy for people like me. I always maintain that I'm innocent, even at my trial, and that is why they don't like me."
Trung's mother Le Thi Tam said her son was surprised when told of his release while performing his morning duties in prison.
"He was sweeping the ground and watering some plants when they summoned him and read out the announcement of his release," she told RFA.
"The prison had a car to drive him to the commune's office and then he came home on a motorbike. We were very surprised and happy," she said. "When he was arrested, nobody in our family cried but we all cried today when he returned home."
Earlier this week, another prominent Vietnamese dissident Cu Huy Ha Vu, who was jailed after trying to sue the prime minister, was freed and allowed to travel to the United States following intense campaigning by rights groups and foreign governments.
Vu, a French-trained lawyer and son of a Vietnamese revolutionary leader, was sentenced in April 2011 to seven years in prison for "anti-state activity."
Both Trung and Hoi still have to serve three years each in probation.
Trung was sentenced with three others in Ho Chi Minh City in January 2010 for alleged links to the banned Democratic Party of Vietnam.
They were accused of "colluding" with Vietnamese activists based abroad to create anti-government websites, post critical articles on the Internet, and incite social instability, and charged with attempting to overthrow the government under Article 79 of Vietnam's Penal Code.
As the leader of the Assembly of Vietnamese Youth for Democracy, he had been one of the outspoken political dissidents in Vietnam.
Hoi's articles and internet postings advocating human rights and democratic reforms were viewed by the court as a national security crime under Article 88 of the Penal Code.
In 2009, he won the Hellman/Hammett grant, an annual writers' prize awarded by U.S.-based Human Rights Watch to persecuted writers around the world, "in recognition of his courage as a writer despite harassment and repression by the government."
In his 2008 memoir, "Facing Reality," Hoi wrote: "The biggest loss for a human being is the loss of the right to be a human being; the biggest criminal is the one who robs others of human rights; the most pitiful person is the one who does not understand human rights; the one who deserves criticism most is the one who forgets human rights; the most cowardly person is the one who accepts the loss of human rights."
"I once deserved to be criticized and was once a coward."
The Vietnamese government has come under constant criticism from rights groups and Western governments for its intolerance of political dissent and systematic violations of freedom of religion.
All newspapers and television channels in Vietnam are state-run. Lawyers, bloggers and activists are regularly subject to arbitrary arrest and detention, according to rights groups.
Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders says Vietnam is the world’s second biggest prison for bloggers and cyber-dissidents, after China.