As Tan walked into the lobby of Los Angeles International Airport around 9.40 pm, 25 supporters cheered. Among them was blogger Hai Van Nguyen, better known by his pen name Dieu Cay, with whom 47-year-old Ta had co-founded the Free Journalists Club.
Nguyen was arrested in 2008 under similar charges and was released in October 2014. He now lives in Westminster.
“I will always fight for the people of Vietnam,” Tan told a group of Vietnamese media. “All I’m asking is to give back basic human rights to the people.”
As she spoke, there were hugs, tears and chants of defiance against the communist government.
Tan had served three years of a 10-year prison term on anti-state charges in connection with her blog Cong Ly v Su That (Justice and Truth) that “focused on human rights abuses and corruption among police and in the court system,” according to the advocacy group Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in New York.
Tan has no family or friends in the US and it is still unclear where she will stay, said state Sen. Janet Nguyen, who stood among the supporters.
Long Nguyen, the vice chairman for the Vietnamese American Federation of Southern California, said her location would remain confidential for now, because of security reasons.
“I hope we can get her to Little Saigon, so we can hear about human rights and her experience in prison,” he said.
Asked how she felt when she heard about the death of her mother Dang Thi Kim Lieng who set herself on fire to protest Ta’s arrest during her 2012 trial, she said: “I was devastated. But my mom had always been a fighter. She lit herself where she was supposed to. … I will never shed a tear in front of the communists.”
The United States welcomed the decision by Vietnamese authorities to release Tan.
“But we remain deeply concerned for all persons imprisoned in Vietnam for exercising their human rights and fundamental freedoms and call on the government to release unconditionally all these prisoners and allow all Vietnamese to express their political views without fear of retribution,” he said.
The US State Department said Tan had indicated in a prior conversation that “she wanted to come to the United States if released from prison.”
However, it did not say why Tan was released now.
According to reports by the Committee to Protect Journalists, she must have been released on health grounds as she had become weak after undertaking several hunger strikes to protest prison abuses.
Welcoming Tan, Sen. Nguyen, who had written to President Barack Obama on her behalf, said: “I am proud that the Vietnamese American community in the United States came together as a unified voice to seek for her asylum.”
CPJ and Human Rights Watch too have repeatedly called for Tan’s release.
Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator, welcomed her release but noted that Vietnam is still holding more than a dozen journalists behind bars in connection with their work.
“Vietnamese authorities should do all they can, including repeal the country’s harsh anti-press laws, to ensure that journalists are able to work and report freely,” Dietz said.
Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director for the international group Human Rights Watch, said that Tan’s release represented “Vietnam’s cynical practice of releasing high profile dissidents from prison” and forcing them directly into exile “with immediate departure from the country being the price of their freedom.”
“Hanoi is providing an aura of human rights progress while actually tightening political control,” Robertson said in a press release.
According to a 2013 prison census by CPJ, Vietnam is the fifth worst jailer of journalists in the world.
The top 10 countries for jailing journalists are Turkey, Iran, China, Eritrea, Vietnam, Syria, Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Uzbekistan.