Australian Van Kham Chau located within Vietnam’s prison system as Government urged to act

A man in blue with a furrowed brow is escorted by a guard in green into a court room.
Mr Chau was moved to another prison without the knowledge of his family.(AP: Nguyen Thanh Chung/VNA)
ABC News, June 30, 2020
  • Australian retiree Van Kham Chau would usually celebrate his birthday by cooking lamb with his wife and tending to the dragon fruit in his garden.

    Instead, this month Mr Chau spent his 71st birthday behind bars in a Vietnamese jail cell, thousands of kilometers from his family in Sydney.

    After months of uncertainty surrounding his whereabouts within Vietnam’s prison system, Mr Chau’s family has finally located him.

    But his plight remains grim. Mr Chau — who fled Vietnam by boat in 1982 and made a new life in Sydney — was arrested during a trip back to Vietnam in January 2019.

    He was sentenced to 12 years in prison after being found guilty of terrorist activities, a jail term that Human Rights Watch has likened to a “death sentence” for the elderly Sydney baker.

    Mr Chau is a member of the human rights group Viet Tan, which the Vietnamese Government designates as a “terrorist” group. The organisation says it’s devoted to peaceful activities.

    Mr Chau was being held in a detention centre, but after he lost his appeal in Marchhe was moved to a new location without the knowledge of his family.

    But there was a breakthrough earlier this month when the family was informed he had been moved to Thu Duc prison, three hours from Ho Chi Minh City.

    He hasn’t been allowed a visit from Australian consular officials since mid-January, but the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) revealed to the ABC they have been granted a visit this week.

    Daniel Chau works in the family garden as his mother Trang looks on.
    Mr Chau’s son Daniel and wife Trang Chau want him home.(ABC News: Mazoe Ford)

    Putting on a ‘brave face’

    His nephew, Thinh Tran, 46, lives in Vietnam and visited Mr Chau for 30 minutes at the Thu Duc prison in Binh Thuan Province two weeks ago.

    He said he was able to deliver much-needed medicines to Mr Chau, who has not had recent access to lawyers.

    “He tells us not to worry about his situation, we have to carry on and set a good example so that the Australian Government can help us,” Mr Tran told the ABC.

    The ABC has also been told past consular visits to Mr Chau have been filmed and supervised.

    Dennis Chau speaks at summit
    Dennis Chau said he was angry his father’s activism had put him at such risk, but came to understand.(News Video)

    His youngest son, Dennis Chau, said the recent family visit brought some relief, but he remained concerned about his father’s welfare.

    “If he’s being watched or they can hear everything he says, how truthful is what he’s saying?”

    Dennis Chau said the Australian Government had done very little to advocate for his father’s release.

    “They kind of stonewalled us on any kind of response or any kind of intervention on their side, there’s been like no comments made since his appeal was rejected,” he said.

    “There was no mention of the verdict, no condemnation of the actions of Vietnam … now that his legal options have been exhausted.

    No consular access for five months

    DFAT has been criticised for not pressing the Vietnamese Government harder on the issue of due process during Mr Chau’s trial and sentencing.

    Questions taken on notice from Senate Estimates show DFAT has only asked the Vietnamese Government to release Mr Chau on humanitarian grounds, given his age, the conditions in the prison and the coronavirus pandemic.

    But DFAT said it had not raised his case with Vietnam over “due process concerns”.

    A group of people hold candles with banners at night holding posters.
    Supporters in Sydney called for Mr Chau’s release at a candlelight vigil last year.(Supplied)

    His trial lasted just four-and-a-half hours and he was sentenced in conjunction with his co-accused and no independent witnesses present in the courtroom, and the process has been condemned by human rights groups.

    DFAT has raised the humanitarian issue nine times in the past 18 months, including with Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister.

    The last time Mr Chau received a consular visit was on January 17.

    A DFAT spokesperson on Friday told the ABC they had been granted a consular visit with Mr Chau this week and the department continued to provide consular assistance to the family.

    “Consular and family visits to prisoners in Vietnam were temporarily suspended as a result of measures implemented in accordance with the Vietnamese Prime Minister’s instructions to prevent and protect prisoners against the spread of COVID-19,” they said in a statement.

    “Owing to our privacy obligations we will not provide further comment.”

    DFAT did not directly respond to questions about why it had not raised his case with regard to due process.

    Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to a request for comment.

    Human rights groups say there was no fair trial

    Mr Chau admitted he entered the country on a false ID and he met with a local civil society activist, but denied any terrorism activities.

    He was convicted of terrorism in what Viet Tan described as a sham trial against a political prisoner.

    A man stands in a blue shirt in a Vietnamese wooden court room speaking into microphone, guards in background.
    Mr Chau said he made a mistake by entering the country on a false ID, but denied any terrorist activities and said he loved Vietnam.(AP: Nhan Huu Sang/VNA)

    Human rights group Liberty Victoria has now started advocating for Mr Chau, saying there has been a lack of public condemnation from the Australian Government in his case.

    Martin Radzaj, the chair of the criminal policy board at Liberty Victoria, said Mr Chau deserved more support from the Australian Government.

    A man with a dark beard and glasses.
    Martin Radzaj from Liberty Victoria said there had been a lack of public condemnation from the Government over Mr Chau’s case.(Supplied)

    “Mr Chau is an Australian citizen currently in prison as a 71-year-old with health issues. He’s been hospitalised since his arrest, the family have struggled to get his medication to him,” he said.

    Mr Radzaj said the Australian Government should be petitioning for Mr Chau’s release.

    “They’ve done that in other cases, just not in Mr Chau’s case, and the reasons for that are unknown.

    “We as an organisation don’t know why that has been the case.”

    Viet Tan and other Vietnamese community groups in Australia also wrote to Prime Minister Scott Morrison on June 20 urging the Government to take “immediate action” against a “wrongful conviction by the Vietnamese court”, highlighting Mr Chau’s decades of volunteer work.

    “In the spirit of respecting justice and truth, and protecting citizens who are being persecuted by authoritarian regimes like Vietnam, we urgently call on you to intervene for the release of Australian citizen Chau Van Kham so he can soon be reunited with his family in Sydney.”

    From anger to understanding

    Dennis Chau admitted he was angry at his father for the first few months after he was arrested in Vietnam.

    To him, it was difficult to fathom why he would risk his safety to go back to his birthplace.

    The Chau family pose for a portrait in 1998.
    The Chau family, pictured in 1998, built a life in Sydney.(Supplied: Chau Family)

    But as the months dragged on, Dennis mellowed, and he came to understand why his father had taken the risk.

    “I was really angry and I didn’t really understand why he’d want to go back,” Dennis Chau told the ABC.

    “But the more and more you think about it, and the close relations he had with the Vietnamese community, I soon understood why.

    Mr Tran in Vietnam said he would continue to accompany his mother — Mr Chau’s sister — to deliver medicine and packages of dried fruit to the prison, but that the distance had made visits more challenging, given his mother was in her mid-70s.

    “She still visits, even though it’s quite far, up to 100 kilometres away. But she still goes, because it’s her younger brother,” he said.

    “I hope that he can come home to his family.”