Vietnam releases 74-year-old Australian democracy activist after 4 years

Chau Van Kham was arrested hours after he landed in Vietnam in early 2019.
By RFA Vietnamese
Vietnam releases 74-year-old Australian democracy activist after 4 years Chau Van Kham [left], an Australian of Vietnamese descent, is escorted into a courtroom in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, in 2019.
Nguyen Thanh Chung/VNA via AP

Vietnam has released Australian citizen and pro-democracy activist Chau Van Kham about four years into a 12-year prison sentence he received while visiting the country in 2019. 

Kham, 74, who returned home to Sydney on Tuesday, had been a member of Viet Tan, a pro-democracy group with members inside Vietnam and abroad, which has been described by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights as a moderate activist group advocating for democratic reform. 

Hanoi, meanwhile, claims it is a terrorist organization that aims to topple the government.

Dai Le, Australia’s first Vietnamese-born member of parliament, confirmed the release to RFA’s Vietnamese Service on Tuesday.

“I believe Mr. Kham was released in the last 48 hours,” she said. “He arrived back in Sydney today. I was not notified, but obviously it was all very hush hush. It was done in a very highly confidential environment to manage the publicity around it.”

Le had been instrumental in Canberra’s efforts to lobby Hanoi for Kham’s early release, even visiting with Kham in prison and delivering him a letter from his family.

Arrested hours after arrival

Kham was arrested Jan. 13, 2019, hours after he arrived in Vietnam and met with a fellow pro-democracy activist. 

The 12-year sentence, for "terrorism aimed at toppling the people's administration," was handed down after his trial in November 2019, and the appeals court upheld the sentence in March 2020.

New York-based Human Rights Watch called it a death sentence given Kham’s advanced age, and his family worried that several medical conditions could worsen in prison.

Kham suffers from glaucoma, high blood pressure, and kidney stones, according to Viet Tan.

His release came on humanitarian grounds “in a spirit of friendship” between Canberra and Hanoi, according to Australian Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles, CNN reported.

“This is a result of careful advocacy, which has been undertaken by the Australian government with the Vietnamese government, over a number of months now,” Marles said.

The release came after repeated calls from the international community to release Kham, including a January 2023 open letter signed by human rights activists and elected officials from around the world. Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese raised the issue last month during a diplomatic visit to mark 50 years of relations between the two countries.

Vietnam War

Born in 1949 in southern Vietnam, Chau Van Kham had joined the South Vietnamese army during the Vietnam War, which ended with the South’s defeat in 1975 to the communist North.

Kham, having supported the South, was sent to study in reeducation camps for three years, and eventually made his way to Australia in 1983, where he joined Viet Tan and became a senior member.

News of Kham’s release and return to Sydney was welcomed by Viet Tan, Nguyen Do Thanh Phong, a member of the group’s Central Committee told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.

“[The release] is a good thing, because recently  Mr. Kham's health had declined due to his old age, and long-time  imprisonment of more than four years,” said Phong. 

He credited Kham’s release to the efforts of the international community and the Australian government.

More than 150 political prisoners

Kham’s case was one of several instances of Hanoi imprisoning foreign nationals of Vietnamese ancestry. In most cases, they are released ahead of schedule in what Hanoi calls its “clemency and humanity” policy.

But the releases are not examples of the government acting merciful, they are the direct result of international pressure, Phong said.

“In recent years, many democracy activists and human rights activists have been arrested, and the sentences are getting heavier and more severe,” he said. “That cannot reflect humanity. The very nature of [this kind of] arrest and imprisonment is a work that is especially inhumane.”

Human rights groups have applauded Kham’s release.

“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,” Rose Kulak, Amnesty International’s Australia campaigner said in a statement.

Kham’s release is “fantastic news,” Elaine Pearson, Asia Director of New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in a statement, but she was critical of Hanoi for continuing to hold more than 150 political prisoners 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,” she said.

Translated by An Nguyen. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.


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