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Vietnamese authorities released Nguyen Van Dai, a prominent human rights lawyer, from prison late on Thursday and exiled him to Germany along with a second dissident, democracy activists said on Friday.

The release and expulsion of the two came a day after more than 90 civil society groups published an open letter to the EU and the European Parliament urging them to reject a planned free trade agreement with Vietnam — a one-party Communist state — because of its poor record on human rights.

Mr Dai, a co-founder of the banned Brotherhood for Democracy, was released from prison on Thursday night and boarded a Vietnam Airlines flight from Hanoi to Frankfurt, Viet Tan, a pro-democracy group, announced on Friday.

Mr Dai and his wife, Vu Minh Khanh, were due to proceed to Berlin, their final destination, after arriving in Frankfurt on Friday morning, Viet Tan said.

Le Thu Ha, another human rights activist from the same group, was also released and exiled to Germany, the group said. Ms Ha is Mr Dai’s longtime assistant.

Both dissidents were handed long prison sentences for their human rights work in April, and declined to appeal against them because they said they distrusted Vietnam’s courts.

The Brotherhood for Democracy was founded in 2013 with the stated goal of defending human rights and promoting democratic ideals, and it has campaigned on behalf of religious freedom and jailed fellow dissidents and their families.

According to Human Rights Watch, Vietnam is currently imprisoning more than 100 human rights activists, including bloggers.

“We are heartened that Nguyen Van Dai does not have to endure more years of prison,” Duy Hoang, a spokesperson for Viet Tan, said on Friday. “However, his and other members of the BFD’s imprisonment by the Vietnamese authorities was arbitrary and illegal in the first place.”

The group said that Mr Dai should be allowed to return to Vietnam “as a free person at the time of his choosing”.

There was no immediate comment from Vietnam’s government, nor confirmation of the dissidents’ release and departure for Germany in state-controlled media.

On June 6 civil society groups published their open letter, in which they urged EU countries to reject a pending free trade agreement with Vietnam, saying it would be “a disgrace” for the bloc “to ratify free trade with a country that is one of the world’s worst enemies of freedom of expression, freedom of the press and freedom of association”.

In April, a court in Hanoi put Mr Dai, Ms Ha and four other Brotherhood for Democracy activists on trial, sentencing them to prison terms of 15 years and nine years respectively.

According to Viet Tan, the two dissidents were arrested on December 16 2015, as Mr Dai was about to give a talk on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The US and EU condemned Vietnam for jailing the activists.

By John Reed - The Financial Times - June 8, 2018