One of Vietnam’s leading democracy activists said on Tuesday that he was released from prison because he has a brain tumor and suffered three strokes while in custody.

The Rev. Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly, 63, said communist authorities freed him on Monday after he served just three years of an eight—year sentence because they did not want to be blamed if his health took a turn for the worse.

“They didn’t want to be responsible for the treatment of my tumour, which is complicated, and they wanted to improve their standing in the international community,” said Rev. Ly, speaking by phone from the main Catholic church in the central city of Hue.

Vietnam has sent 16 democracy activists to jail in the last several months and has come under frequent international criticism for its human rights record.

Rev. Ly said he was released for one year’s medical probation, which can be extended at his family’s request.

Vietnamese officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

A long-time human rights activist, Rev. Ly has been in and out of prison and house arrest for years, most recently for helping found a group called Bloc 8406, which promoted multiparty democracy.

In 2007, he was sentenced to eight years in prison and five years of house arrest for disseminating anti—government propaganda. During a dramatic trial, police muzzled him for shouting anti—communist slogans and accusing Vietnamese officials of practicing “the law of the jungle.”

“I will always consider myself a prisoner of conscience,” Rev. Ly said on Tuesday. “I do not accept that sentence.”

Rev. Ly was taken to his hometown of Hue in an ambulance from the Ba Sao prison in the northern province of Ha Nam.

Human rights groups welcomed Rev. Ly’s release but stressed that Vietnam is still holding many other democracy activists in prison.

“By releasing Father Ly, the Vietnamese government has not reversed its deplorable rights record,” said Sophie Richardson of New York—based Human Rights Watch.

Rev. Ly is partly paralyzed on the right side of his body but can walk with a cane.

“My health has improved,” he said. “Four months ago, I was confined to bed and couldn’t move my arm or leg.”

Rev. Ly said he was held in solitary confinement in a 160—square—foot (15—square—meter) cell with a similar sized yard, where he could exercise. He was allowed to watch television and read the Communist Party newspaper, Nhan Dan.

After his last stroke, in November, he was hospitalized in Hanoi for one month, then sent back to prison. After that, another inmate moved into his cell and helped him eat and wash his clothes, Rev. Ly said.

He is now staying at the Archdiocese of Hue, where priests planned to call doctors to assess his health.

In July, 37 U.S. senators sent a letter to President Nguyen Minh Triet, calling for Rev. Ly’s release.

Among them was Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, who issued a statement on Monday welcoming Rev. Ly’s release and describing his arrest, trial and conviction as “deeply flawed.”

“It is long past time for Vietnam to abide by its own constitution and international law and immediately release all those detained for their peaceful advocacy of religious and political freedoms,” she said.

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