A 70-year-old Australian democracy activist has “disappeared” inside Vietnam’s prison system: no one from his family or the Australian government has been allowed to see or speak with him for nearly four months.
Human rights advocates, lawyers and Chau Van Kham’s 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”.
Vietnamese-born Chau was arrested in January 2019 and sentenced to 12 years imprisonment on “financing terrorism” charges over his membership of pro-democracy group Viet Tan.
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.”
Chau’s sister, who lives in Vietnam, had previously been allowed to visit once a month to give her brother money, medicine and letters from home. But she has been refused access and phone calls to him since 10 February.
On her most recent visit she was told her brother was no longer in the B34 Detention Centre in Ho Chi Minh City where he’d been held, but officials would not tell her to where he had been moved. Weeks later – after government and media inquiries into his whereabouts – Chau’s family was informed he’d been moved to a prison more than three hours away. There has still been no contact with 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.”
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.
The United Nations describes Viet Tan as “a peaceful organisation advocating for democratic reform”, but it was formally proscribed as a terrorist organisation by the Vietnamese government in 2016, which said it was “a reactionary and terrorist organisation, always silently carrying out activities against 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.
Chau was convicted and sentenced at his first appearance in the people’s court of Ho Chi Minh City after more than 10 months in detention.
The single-day judge-only trial, held simultaneously with four other people, saw him tried and convicted on charges of “financing terrorism”, and sentenced to 12 years in jail, all within four hours.
The court was effectively closed – open only for approved people, his family was excluded – for the entirety of the trial. Viet Tan condemned Chau’s hearing as a “sham trial” and said it would “continue to support human rights defenders on the ground”.
Chau’s appeal was dismissed in March.
Dennis Chau told a human rights summit in Geneva this year: “With a 12-year sentence, [my father will] be 82 when he is released … I don’t believe I’ll ever see him alive, a free man. It’s effectively a death sentence.”
He said the family felt it was a “cat and mouse game” with the prison officials.
“No communication of any sort, and now to make things even harder for us, moving him further away.”
For Chau’s wife, Trang, his imprisonment has brought immense stress, and “a lot of sadness”.
“My mother is handling as best she can [but] I know she misses him and would like him back as soon as possible.”
Elaine Pearson, Australia director of Human Rights Watch, said it was extremely concerning that in the midst of a pandemic, no one from the Australian consulate or Chau’s family had been allowed to visit to check on his welfare; even to speak by phone, if public health measures meant visits were not possible.
“Especially given his age and health needs, he should be released from prison as soon as possible and the Australian government needs to press harder for that. We have seen other examples of Vietnamese political prisoners released into exile in the US, France and Germany so it can be done.”
Pearson said Chau’s arrest was part of a broader crackdown on freedom of expression across Vietnam, and that repressive governments around the world had used the cover of Covid-19 to target perceived opponents.
“The Australian government might be reluctant to criticise Vietnam because it wants friends in Southeast Asia to counter China’s growing influence, yet any friendship with those countries should be accompanied by firmly standing up for human rights.”
The Guardian put a series of questions about Chau Van Kham’s imprisonment and wellbeing to the Vietnam embassy in Canberra. It has not received a response. Phone calls were not returned.
Australia’s department of foreign affairs and trade said it continued to seek access to Chau.
“Vietnamese authorities understand our strong interest in Mr Chau’s health and welfare,” a spokesperson said.