Sydney man Chau Van Kham freed from Vietnam prison and returned to Australia

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July 11, 2023

Australian man Chau Van Kham has been released from a Vietnamese prison and reunited with his family in Australia.

Mr Chau, a retired baker from Sydney, was detained in Vietnam in January 2019 and sentenced to 12 years in prison on terrorism charges.

Mr Chau’s wife, Trang, told the ABC it had been more than four and a half years since the family had seen him.

She thanked the Australian government for bringing him home.

“I’m very happy today… My husband got home, [he’s] happy and healthy,” she said.

The 74-year-old had been detained on national security charges.

He is a member of Viet Tan, a group that advocates for democracy in Vietnam which the Vietnamese government considers a terrorist organisation.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said Australia “very much welcomes the release of Chau Van Kham”, adding Mr Chau’s ongoing detention was an issue he raised with his Vietnamese counterparts during his visit last month.

Mr Albanese told 7.30 at the time that he had made representations on behalf of Mr Chau during high-level meetings in the South-East Asian nation and was seeking a prisoner transfer.

“I thank our friends in Vietnam for listening and for agreeing during my visit there for this to occur,” he said.

“It’s an example of how engagement in a constructive way achieves results in Australia’s national interests.”

Earlier, Acting Prime Minister Richard Marles also welcomed the news of Mr Chau’s release and thanked the Vietnamese government.

“This has been done on the basis of humanitarian grounds, and in the spirit of friendship which exists between Australia and Vietnam,” Mr Marles said this morning.

“This has been the result of careful advocacy on the part of the Australian government with the Vietnamese government over a number of months now, including the Prime Minister’s visit to Vietnam back in June.”

Family ‘absolutely emotional’

Mr Chau was first arrested in 2019 after meeting with a pro-democracy activist, and authorities alleged he entered the country via Cambodia on a false document.

Later that year, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison for holding a senior position in the NSW chapter of Viet Tan and “financing terrorism”.

His trial lasted less than five hours and was dismissed as a “sham” by his family, while human rights groups raised concerns about due process.

The Chau family’s lawyer Dan Nguyen said it was a long road to get him home safely.

“Twelve years is almost like a death sentence for somebody his age, but we’re so happy that he’s home, and we’re so happy that he’s home a free man,” she told the ABC.

She said the family are “absolutely emotional”.

“Words cannot describe how happy they are. But I’m also happy that I’ve been able to help to bring him home and we thank the Australian government tremendously for their effort in bringing him home,” Ms Nguyen said.

She told the ABC the government had been a “driving force” in bringing him home safely through high-level negotiations.

“Mr Chau Van Kham is not a terrorist. He hasn’t committed any terrorism act. He belongs to a movement that promotes democracy and fights for democracy in Vietnam. So his returned to Australia can only strengthen that,” she said.

In a press release Ms Nguyen thanked well wishers and asked for privacy at this emotional time of reunion.

Mr Chau, who fled Vietnam and came to Australia as a refugee by boat back in the 1980s, met his wife in Australia.

They had two sons, Daniel and Dennis, and lived above the laundry shop Mr Chau ran until he opened a bakery.

Mr Chau, who once fought alongside US troops in the Vietnam War and survived the 1968 Tet offensive as a 19-year-old student in Hue, was politically active in his retirement and joined protests advocating for democracy in his home country.

His release closes a harrowing chapter for the family.

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention determined that when he was unable to be located by a family member within Vietnam’s prison system, he had been “forcibly disappeared”.

Mr Chau’s mother-in-law, whom he lived with and was close to, died of COVID-19 last year while he was still in prison.

Mr Chau’s family had been hopeful for his release after Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s visit to Vietnam in June.

It came after the prime minister had secured clemency for two unnamed Australians who were facing the death penalty in Vietnam.

Human Rights Watch’s Asia director, Elaine Pearson, said Mr Chau had spent “far too long” in prison where he faced long periods of isolation from family and consular staff due to pandemic restrictions.

“We are thrilled for Chau Van Kham’s family and acknowledge the successful efforts of the Australian government at the most senior levels to secure his release,” Ms Pearson said.

Viet Tan, the opposition political party Mr Chau is affiliated with, operates openly and lawfully in many countries including Australia, she said, adding that more than 150 political prisoners are currently being held in Vietnam for “for peaceful acts of free expression”.

“The one-party state has no tolerance for anyone who expresses a narrative contrary to the government, and the Australian government should continue to call on Vietnamese authorities to release all political prisoners,” Ms Pearson said.

Amnesty International Australia considered him a prisoner of conscience — detained solely for his peaceful political beliefs — and the group welcomed his safe return.

“For years, tens of thousands of Amnesty International Australia supporters who were shocked by Mr Chau’s imprisonment have worked together to support Mr Chau and his family and to help call for his release,” Amnesty International Australia campaigner Rose Kulak said.

“Today is a momentous day for the movement to free wrongly imprisoned people around the world, and serves as a reminder that Australians in their tens of thousands will take action to defend human rights.”

View the article on ABC News here.

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