UPDATED at 10:50 a.m. EDT on 10/17/18
Vietnamese blogger and activist Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh—known by her blogger handle Me Nam, or Mother Mushroom— was freed from jail Wednesday and put on a flight to the United States, the Agence France-Presse (AFP) news agency reported from Hanoi.
Human rights groups welcomed the news, but said Quynh paid for her freedom by accepting exile and that she and more than 100 others should never have been jailed for expressing their opinions in the first place.
"Quynh was sent to the U.S. earlier today," AFP quoted a Vietnamese government official as saying. The agency said she would join her children and mother in the United States.
The Vietnam Bloggers’ Network said on its Facebook page that Quynh was taken to Hanoi's airport, where she, her mother and children flew to Taipei and were expected to connect with a flight expected to arrive in Houston late on Wednesday.
A neighbor of Quynh in Nha Trang told RFA's Vietnamese that security agents surrounded her family's house throughout Wednesday.
"I went to the house of Mother Mushroom’s uncle and saw a photo of Quynh being led inside an airplane," the neighbor said.
The U.S. State Department said it welcomed the decision by Vietnam to release Quynh.
"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," Reuters news agency quoted a spokeswoman for the department as saying.
The release came shortly after U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis left Vietnam after a brief visit.
Arrested in October 2016, the 39-year-old Quynh was sentenced in June 2017 to 10 years in jail on charges of spreading “propaganda against the state” under Article 88 of Vietnam’s Penal Code.
Quynh's detention, during which she staged several hunger strikes, was one of the more high profile cases of activists handed heavy sentences as part of an ongoing crackdown by the one-party state in the Southeast Asian nation, which holds more than 100 political prisoners and adds more to the list every week.
“This good news, which comes as a relief after two years behind bars, should also be a reminder of Vietnam’s worsening record of jailing anyone who criticizes the regime. While Mother Mushroom is no longer imprisoned, the condition for her release was exile and there are over one hundred people languishing in jail because they peacefully spoke their mind – in public, on blogs or on Facebook," Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s regional director for East and South East Asia.
Many 'still wrongfully held behind bars'
"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," Shawn Crispin, Committee to Protect Journalists senior Southeast Asia representative, said in a statement. "Authorities should follow through on the move by releasing all the other journalists still wrongfully held behind bars in Vietnam."
Phil Robertson, Bangkok-based deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch said the jailing and release of Quynh was part of campaign to “disrupt and dissolve the internal human rights and democracy movement one prominent activist at a time.”
“This release makes Vietnam’s new political repression strategy clear: arrest activists on bogus, rights abusing charges, prosecute them in kangaroo courts, and sentence them to ridiculously long prison terms.
“Then when hope fades in the face of years in horrific conditions behind bars, offer a freedom for exile deal and claim credit for the release,” Robertson said in a statement.
“No one should forget that Vietnam is still one of the most repressive states in Southeast Asia, with more than 100 political prisoners behind bars for speaking their minds, organizing associations outside of government control, and holding peaceful protests,” he added.
Quynh had blogged about human rights abuses and corruption for more than a decade, and more recently voiced criticism over Vietnam’s policy toward China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
She has also criticized the government’s response to a 2016 toxic waste spill by a Taiwanese firm that destroyed the livelihoods of tens of thousands of Vietnamese living in four coastal provinces.
Quynh received the International Women of Courage Award in 2017, presented to her in absentia by U.S. First Lady Melania Trump.
Authorities have long targeted activist writers and bloggers in an ongoing crackdown in one-party Communist Vietnam, where dissent is not allowed.