Vietnam has released two more high-profile dissidents as it negotiates a free-trade deal with Washington that may not be approved unless Hanoi improves its human rights record.
Vi Duc Hoi and Nguyen Tien Trung were released over the weekend with 11/2 years and nine months of their sentences left to serve, respectively.
They were each convicted of crimes related to their peaceful advocacy for multiparty democracy in Vietnam, which is ruled by an authoritarian government that does not 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 US government-funded media network. "I lost some weight but I am still OK physically and mentally," 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 privately negotiating for his release. A photo widely distributed on Facebook shows him at an American airport flicking a V-for-victory sign. A US diplomat posted at the embassy in Hanoi was by his side in the picture.
Phil Robertson, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said the two men should never have been imprisoned in the first place.
"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.
Washington is seeking to conclude a trade deal with Vietnam and 10 other Asia-Pacific nations. The pact is seen as vital to boosting American exports in fast-growing markets and demonstrating US economic leadership in a region where China's influence is growing.
The 12 nations, including Japan, failed to complete the deal by year's end as hoped. They have restarted talks and hope to reach an agreement soon.
Vietnam's leaders, mindful of the country's stumbling economy, want to join the pact because it will boost exports and create jobs.