U.S. 'Deeply Concerned' by Arrest of Vietnam Rights Activist

Nguyen Van Dai is seen outside Hoan Kiem court in Hanoi, Vietnam on December 14. REUTERS/Stringer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States said on Monday it was deeply concerned by the arrest of a Vietnamese human rights lawyer and called on Hanoi to release all prisoners of conscience.

Rights activist Nguyen Van Dai, who was badly beaten this month by unknown attackers, was arrested last week for anti-state "propaganda," the latest incident in what rights groups are calling an alarming crackdown on government critics.

"We're deeply concerned by the arrest of human rights advocate Nguyen Van Dai under national security-related article 88 of Vietnam's penal code," U.S. State Department Spokesman John Kirby told a regular news briefing.

"We urge Vietnam to ensure its laws and actions are consistent with its international obligations and commitments, and (call) on the government to release unconditionally all prisoners of conscience."

Despite sweeping reforms to its economy and increasing openness toward social change, including gay, lesbian and transgender rights, Vietnam's ruling Communist Party retains tight media censorship and zero tolerance for criticism.

Relations with the United States have warmed in recent years, particularly given shared concerns about China's increasingly assertive behavior in Asia and a desire by Washington to conclude a sweeping Trans-Pacific Partnership pact.

Washington has partially lifted a long-standing embargo on arms sales to Vietnam, but its full removal is dependent on further improvement in human rights.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch says Vietnam is holding at least 130 political prisoners.

It says there has been a reduction this year in what it calls politically motivated trials and convictions in Vietnam, but called this an attempt to gain favor while trade deals, such as the TPP, to which Vietnam is a party, were being finalised.

Activists say Dai, the 47-year-old founder of the Committee for Human Rights in Vietnam, and three associates were brutally beaten by about 20 unidentified men wielding sticks after they participated in a human rights workshop.

A representative of the United Nations human rights commissioner condemned that attack and said activists' allegations that it was carried out by plain-clothes police should be fully addressed.