Vietnamese human rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai, 48, was recently sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Vietnam has released a Christian human rights lawyer and his assistant – both of whom were given long prison sentences in April – and sent them to Germany.

No statement was issued by the government on the release of Nguyen Van Dai, 48, and his assistant, Le Thu Ha, on Thursday 7 June.

Catholic news site UCAN linked the pair’s release to a letter written by 90 NGOs, who called on the European Union to reject a free-trade agreement with Vietnam until the country “releases all political prisoners and upholds human rights”.

Van Dai and his assistant had been sentenced in April to prison terms of 15 and nine years, respectively, for activities “aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration”.

Upon their release they were put on a plane to Germany, along with Van Dai’s wife Vu Minh Khanh, where they have been offered political asylum.

“The German government welcomes the release of Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thu Ha,” spokeswoman Maria Adebahr told a news conference in Berlin, as reported by Reuters. “We see it as remarkable humanitarian step from the Vietnamese side and a good signal to the international community.”

But the Paris-based Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) said “the Vietnamese government deserves no credit for their release”.

“Hanoi arbitrarily deprived these brave human rights defenders of several years of their lives and now releases them on condition of their exile,” a statement by the committee said. “Vietnam should stop using dissidents as bargaining chips to obtain commercial advantages from Western countries and cease its cynical policy of ‘exporting dissent’ by forcing its critics into exile.”

‘Brotherhood for Democracy’

Van Dai and his assistant were among six people sentenced in April by a court in the capital Hanoi. All of them were members of the ‘Brotherhood for Democracy’, an organisation founded by Van Dai in 2013 to promote human rights through online actions.

The other four activists, Pastor Nguyen Trung Ton; Nguyen Bac Truyen, head of an association of former religious and political prisoners; activist Phạm Van Troi; and journalist and labour rights activist Truong Minh Duc, had their prison sentences of between 7 and 12 years upheld in an appeal trial on 4 June, reported Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

The advocacy organisation said it would continue to call on the Vietnamese government to release the four men and other prisoners of conscience.

Van Dai and Ha were arrested in Hanoi on 16 December 2015 and accused of propaganda against the state. By then the lawyer had already served four years in prison and another four years under house arrest.