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(Reuters) - A dissident jailed for criticizing Vietnam's leadership has been freed and is now in Washington, family friends and a U.S. official said on Tuesday, a rare concession by a country long criticized for its human rights record.
French-educated lawyer Cu Huy Ha Vu left Vietnam on Sunday with his wife after his release three years into a 10-year sentence of both jail and house arrest for conducting "anti-state propaganda".
"We welcome the decision by Vietnamese authorities to release prisoner of conscience Dr Cu Huy Ha Vu," said Spencer Cryder, a spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Hanoi.
His release comes as pressure mounts on Vietnam, which won a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2013, to stop intimidating, arresting and jailing critics, bloggers and other dissidents. Activists say such activity has spiked in the past few years.
With his strongly worded calls for a multi-party system and a change in national leadership, Vu, 56, became one of the ruling communist party's most high-profile critics.
He became even more prominent because his father, poet Cu Huy Can, was a former minister and a close associate of Vietnam's late revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh.
Vietnam's reputation for stamping out free speech has left the United States with a challenge to build a case for deeper trade and military ties with its former enemy, an approach aimed at tapping Vietnam's emerging market potential and tempering the growing influence of its communist neighbor, China.
The United States and Vietnam have been locked in tricky negotiations about a Trans Pacific Partnership, a trade deal that needs the support of a Congress that has a record of opposing trade deals with countries that have poor human rights records.
While free speech is enshrined in Vietnam's constitution, activists and bloggers who criticize the ruling party face a maximum seven years in prison if found guilty of carrying out anti-state propaganda.
Vu's release was not reported by official media and it was unclear why he was freed before completing his sentence.
On Tuesday, the state-run Vietnam News Agency carried a story based on comments it said were by a U.S. congressman that "highlighted the progress on freedom of speech and media in Vietnam".
Reporting by Martin Petty in BANGKOK; Editing by Paul Tait