Four Vietnamese people are facing trial on human trafficking charges despite claims that Hanoi broke a promise to Canberra that the “boat people” would not be prosecuted for attempting to sail to Australia in search of work.
On Dec. 13, the four Vietnamese will be tried for “organizing for others to flee the country illegally” under article 349 of the new penal code, according to a Nov. 18 statement by Ba Ria Vung Tau court that was obtained by RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
The trial would mark the third time this year that the Vietnamese government has tried some of the country's citizens who were returned by Australia. In the two previous trials in Binh Thuan province eight people were sentenced to jail for terms ranging from 24 to 36 months.
While the four defendants going on trial in Vietnam’s southern province of Ba Ria Vung Tau face the same charge, the new penal code approved in July imposes much harsher sentences.
“I read the prosecutor’s report, and I saw that they are going to use the new penal code which has tougher jail punishments than the old one,” said Vo An Don, an attorney representing Huynh Thi My Van and her husband, Nguyen Tuan Kiet.
Under the new code, Nguyen Tuan Kiet faces a jail sentence of seven to 15 years and Huynh Thi My Van faces a sentence of one to five years.
The four defendants were among 21 people who fled Vietnam by fishing boat on May 18. They reached Australian waters on June 9, when they were detained by Australia Navy.
They were then returned to Vietnam by airplane and arrived at Tan Son Nhat airport in Ho Chi Minh City on June 16. Upon their arrival, they went through many hours of interrogation, according to one of the defendants.
Following the interrogation, the Vietnamese police detained two people and let others go. Huynh Thi My Van’s husband was detained with another trip organizer, whose name was not readily available.
‘I was a victim’
While Van said she and her husband attempted to go to Australia in search of work, they are innocent.
“I don’t think that I committed any crime. I did not tell anybody to go with us. I did not organize the trip,” she told RFA. “I did not buy any supplies for the trip. I did not know anything. I just packed up and left when they told us they were ready to leave. I was a victim.”
According to Van, both the governments promised them they would not be jailed or prosecuted if they went back to Vietnam.
“They told us that the government of Vietnam promised the government of Australia that we would be freed when we returned to Vietnam,” she explained. “One female representative of the Vietnamese government told us that we left Vietnam for the reason of making a living so we should not be jailed.”
But that promise was broken once they landed at Tan Son Nhat Airport, she said.
“Once we got to the airport they took us to a police station for an interrogation and after that they just kept my husband until now,” she said. “It’s been more than five months.”
This is not the first time Vietnam has been accused of breaking its promises to refugees returned by Australia. Representatives of the Vietnamese government gave a similar guarantees to 92 refugees who attempted to sail to Australia in two separate boats, but were returned in July.
The court of Binh Thuan province this year has sentenced eight people to various jail terms in that case.
According to Van, their ordeal started when Vu Tuan Khanh and Nguyen Giao Thong offered to pay her husband, a fisherman VND 20 million (U.S.$882) a month to sail a fishing boat to Australia.
While each person going on the trip was charged VND 50 million (U.S. $2,205), Van’s family didn’t have to pay because he was sailing the boat and they are poor.
“They told us that our family could go without paying. We did not have any job back then, so we were so happy to have the offer,” she said. “We decided to take two children with us on the trip.”
Vu Tuan Khanh and Nguyen Giao Thong are brothers who are also facing charges.
The cases have garnered international attention as Human Rights Watch urged Vietnam to drop all charges against “boat people” returned from Australia.
“Vietnam has blatantly broken its promise to the Australian government not to prosecute boat returnees,” Elaine Pearson, the organization’s Australia director, wrote in a statement.
“The Vietnamese government is prosecuting the four defendants for leaving Vietnam without the government’s permission, violating their fundamental right under international law to leave their own country,” Pearson added.
Attorney Vo An Don said he thinks the government of Vietnam continues to prosecute returned refugees as a warning to others.
“They think that those who illegally leave Vietnam badly affect the prestige of the country, the order of society, so they decided to prosecute them,” he said. “They prosecute them to warn others not to leave the country.”
Reported and translated by Viet Ha for RFA's Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.