By Trevor Hunnicutt
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two Vietnamese activists who the Biden administration believes were wrongly detained by the country's Communist government are relocating to the United States under an agreement negotiated ahead of the president's recent visit to Hanoi, U.S. officials told Reuters. A human rights lawyer who campaigned for accountability for police abuses, a Catholic parishioner evicted from his home, and their families are exiting Vietnam for the United States, one of the officials said.
In the United States, the families are expected to seek resettlement under the "Priority 1" refugee program. The activists were not imprisoned, but had been barred from leaving Vietnam.
Vietnam's government had also agreed to release two imprisoned Vietnamese activists sought by the United States prior to Biden's visit last week, a U.S. official said, and signed a private agreement to make progress on religious freedom, non-governmental organization (NGO) operations in the country, prison conditions and labor laws, one of the officials said.
The topics of the private agreement, which Reuters has not independently reviewed, were not previously reported. They were inked as Vietnam agreed to lift Washington to Hanoi's highest diplomatic status alongside China and Russia on a trip in which Biden endorsed the country's vision as a high-tech leader.
The agreements come as the Biden administration faces criticism over its diplomacy with Vietnam, India and Saudi Arabia, whose governments deny political freedoms enjoyed in the West, and over its negotiations around a prisoner exchange with Iran.
The Vietnamese prisoners included a legal scholar focused on religion who was released to Germany and another individual sentenced for tax evasion related to his NGO.
The officials would not identify any of the four people, citing diplomatic and security sensitivities, but the two ex-prisoners' names are known. Legal advocate Nguyen Bac Truyen confirmed his release and his travel with his wife to Germany earlier this month. The release of independent journalist Mai Phan Loi was also confirmed earlier this month.
'REPRESENTATIVES OF A MUCH LARGER GROUP'
The Vietnamese human rights community sees the situation there as dire.
Vietnam is holding at least 159 political prisoners and detaining 22 others, Human Rights Watch said earlier this month. They have sentenced 15 people to long prison terms without a fair trial this year, the advocacy group said.
Vietnam is also drafting new rules that would curtail freedom of expression online, banning social media users who publish news-related content without being registered as journalists, according to people familiar with the plans.
"It's outrageous that President Biden chose to upgrade diplomatic ties with Vietnam at a time when the one-party state is in the middle of a brutal crackdown on activism, dissent and civil society," said Ben Swanton, co-director of Project 88, a rights advocacy focused on Vietnam.
Vietnam often releases such prisoners before presidential visits. Biden administration officials pushed for the exit visas as an additional step during final negotiations over the joint statement and trip logistics, according to one of the U.S. officials.
The people are "representative of a much larger group that we believe should be free," the U.S. official said.
"While we wish that we could have gotten many more people out ahead of the president's visit, we do believe that this increased partnership and the strengthened relationship gives us the vehicles and the processes we need to keep working on these issues with Vietnamese friends."
U.S. officials said they hope those conversations will happen both in annual rights dialogues with the Vietnamese - which have sometimes been dismissed by some rights activists and officials as an insubstantial exchange of talking points - as well as in ongoing talks between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Vietnamese counterpart, Bui Thanh Son.
(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in Washington; Additional reporting by Francesco Guarascio in Hanoi. Editing by Heather Timmons and Bill Berkrot)