Jailed democracy activist ‘disappeared’ inside Vietnam’s prison system


After nearly four months of being incommunicado, a 70-year-old Australian democracy activist is feared to have “disappeared” inside Vietnam’s prison system as no one from his family or the Australian government has been allowed to see or speak with him in prison.

Vietnamese-born Chau Van Kham’s was arrested in January 2019 and sentenced to 12 years imprisonment on “financing terrorism” charges over his membership of pro-democracy group Viet Tan.

Human rights advocates, lawyers his family said the charges against him are baseless and politically motivated, his single-day multiple-defendant trial was grossly unfair, and his failing health means his 12-year prison sentence is “effectively a death sentence”.

Chau, an Australian citizen, was born in Vietnam and served in the army of the Republic of Vietnam before 1975. After the war, he was sent to a re-education camp for three years before he fled Vietnam by boat, arriving in Australia in 1983. In Sydney, he worked as a baker for decades, rising before dawn to work at a modest suburban bakery.

In 2010, he became a member of the Viet Tan pro-democracy organisation, and became a key Australian organiser of pro-reform rallies and an outspoken advocate for democratisation in Vietnam.

Chau sought to return to Vietnam in 2019 to meet fellow pro-democracy advocates but was refused a visa.

He crossed into Vietnam via a land border with Cambodia in January, carrying a false identity document. He was arrested after meeting a democracy activist who, it is believed, was under surveillance, along with Vietnamese nationals Nguyen Van Vien and Tran Van Quyen, who were sentenced to 11 and 10 years prison respectively.

His sister was last able to see him in February, giving him money and critical medications for a series of potentially life-threatening conditions, including high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, glaucoma, and kidney stones.

Chau’s son Dennis told the Guardian his family feared his failing health will be exacerbated by his isolation.

“My father is of old age now without any forms of communication to the outside world, I worry not only for his health but his mental state … it frightens me how he’s doing inside.

“He’s now on a long journey until his release with no support from the Australian government at all, it seems like they’ve forgotten about him.”

Officials from Australia’s consulate have had no contact with Chau since 17 January. He has not been allowed to telephone anyone or write any letters.

Consular visits scheduled for February, March, April and May were all cancelled out of concerns over the spread of Covid-19. Permission for a visit in June is pending.

But Vietnam has successfully suppressed the spread of the virus – the country has reported zero deaths – and lifted pandemic restrictions.

“He has literally disappeared,” Australian lawyer Dan Phuong Nguyen, who is acting pro bono for the Chau family, told the Guardian.

“He’s just vanished. I hold grave fears for his safety. Vietnam has opened up now, there are no more coronavirus restrictions. There is no reason why prison officials can’t allow us some sort of contact to let us know he is well and safe. His family is distraught,” he said. (Source: The Guardian)