Nguyen Van Hai, who blogged under the name Dieu Cay, told The Associated Press on Thursday that he refused to sign the document because he didn't believe he had committed a crime.

He said authorities gave him no option but to leave for the United States.

"They rushed me directly from the jail to (Hanoi's) Noi Bai International Airport and escorted me onto the airplane. They didn't allow me to see my family before my departure. So we can't say they released me. If they had given me back my freedom, I could have gone back home instead of going directly to the airport without seeing my family and my friends."

Vietnam's communist government previously said Hai was released for humanitarian reasons.

A State Department spokeswoman said Hai had decided himself to travel to the United States.

Hai, 62, said he wasn't aware of U.S. involvement in his release, other than that the Obama administration was appealing for the release of prisoners of conscience in Vietnam.

Washington has been calling on Vietnam to improve its human rights record to smooth the way for stronger military and economic relations. The U.S., which has a stated commitment to supporting democracy and human rights around the world, wants closer ties with Vietnam as it looks to ramp up America's presence in Southeast Asia and counter an assertive China.

Washington has been intimately involved in negotiations around the early release of other dissidents, but U.S. officials rarely speak about the details publicly. Three dissidents were granted early release in April. One of them, Cu Huy Ha Vu, went directly from jail to the United States accompanied by a U.S. diplomat posted at the embassy in Hanoi.

Hai's release Oct. 21 came on the same day Tom Malinowski, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for human rights, visited Hanoi.

Hai said Hanoi should be congratulated for releasing several political prisoners this year, but questioned its motives.

"I think Hanoi should be encouraged to release political dissidents, but it's unacceptable when they use political prisoners as bargaining chips in diplomatic negotiations," Hai said.

"I hope that all governments (negotiating with Vietnam) put democracy and other civil rights as conditions under which the country should respect and comply with," he added.

Hai was the co-founder of the Club for Free Journalists, which was established to promote independent journalism. He was first detained in 2007 as a result of his political views. His 12-year prison term began in September 2012, and he later went on two hunger strikes against being held under solitary confinement.

He said he shuffled among 11 prisons, where he saw overcrowding, a lack of clean water and poor health care. He said he wasn't allowed visitors or access to media.

Hai said he was able to smuggle a message by a cellmate who is serving a two-year jail sentence for posting online criticism of the government. Truong Duy Nhat, a blogger and former reporter at a state-run newspaper, was convicted of "abusing democratic freedoms" in March.

His message read: "A government needs a critical media, more so than a media that only knows how to praise a government."

Hai was honored last November in the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists' 2013 International Press Freedom Awards.

His ex-wife and two of his children are still in Vietnam and it is not clear whether they will join him. One daughter is in Canada, though Hai said he plans to seek asylum to stay in United States. He said he plans to use his new freedom to promote human rights and freedom of the press inside Vietnam.

By Daisy Nguyen - The Associated Press - October 31, 2014


U.S.-Vietnam ties may free more critics

Nguyen Van Hai, a Vietnamese blogger whose sentence was suspended, said his country’s push to improve ties with the U.S. will lead to more critics of the communist government being released and boost freedom of speech.

Hai, who is known as Dieu Cay, was handed a 12-year jail sentence in 2012 for spreading anti-government propaganda. He was released on Oct. 21 as a result of an agreement between the U.S. and Vietnam, he said in a telephone interview. Hai was taken directly to Hanoi’s Noi Bai International Airport from prison and boarded a flight for Hong Kong and then Los Angeles.

Vietnam’s government will probably release more prisoners such as Hai as a sign of goodwill as it negotiates free trade agreements with the U.S., European Union and other countries, he said. Releases could also occur as a result of Vietnam developing closer relations with the U.S. amid territorial disputes with China, Hai, 62, said.

“In order to reach those agreements, such as TPP or the FTA with the EU, at the end of this year, they will probably release some more people,” he said, referring to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. “They need to build trust. Releasing these dissidents would show an improvement in human rights.”

‘Humanitarian Reasons’

The number of Vietnamese incarcerated for criticizing their government has decreased, U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Lisa Wishman said in an e-mail. She did not provide estimates of how many remain in jail. There are more than 150 dissidents being detained in Vietnam, according to Human Rights Watch.

Vietnam’s government should “release unconditionally all prisoners of conscience and allow all Vietnamese to express their political views without fear of retribution,” Wishman said in an Oct. 22 statement in Hanoi.

Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to an e-mail request for comment.

There are no “prisoners of conscience” in Vietnam, Pham Thu Hang, deputy spokeswoman in Vietnam’s foreign ministry, said by e-mail Oct. 22. The government “decided to temporarily suspend Nguyen Van Hai’s jail term and allow Nguyen Van Hai to emigrate to the U.S. for humanitarian reasons,” she said.

Hai ran afoul of Vietnamese authorities for criticizing China’s claims to the contested Paracel Islands and calling for a boycott of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, he said. Hai was initially arrested in 2008 on charges of tax evasion, he said.

Vietnam is looking for help from other powers to counter China’s military might as both countries compete for oil, gas and fish in the South China Sea. Skirmishes between boats and deadly anti-Chinese riots occurred in Vietnam after China placed an oil rig off Vietnam’s coast in May.

Free Trade

Earlier this month U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told Vietnam Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh that Vietnam will be able to buy non-lethal weapons from the U.S. after the partial lifting of an arms embargo in place since 1984.

Vietnam is also looking to free trade agreements, such as TPP, to bolster an economy that the World Bank estimates will grow 5.4 percent this year, a seventh year of expansion below 7 percent, and lessen its economic reliance on China. The government aims for domestic investment to reach 30 percent of gross domestic product in 2015, about the same level as this year, even as it takes steps to resolve bad debt at banks and privatize state firms, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung told lawmakers on Oct. 20.

“To create trust with Western countries, Vietnam has to create democracy within Vietnam,” Hai said. After trade and other agreements are signed, Vietnam could “crack down” again on those who speak out against the government, he said.

Social media sites like Facebook Inc. (FB) are giving Vietnamese an unprecedented ability to speak freely, he said.

“This has created a new media frontier that is stronger and more widespread,” Hai said. “Social networks are like a land of freedom that is difficult for the government to take control of.”