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Chau Van Kham. © 2017 Private

(Sydney) – Vietnam should drop terrorism charges against three men accused of affiliation with an overseas political group that presently advocates for democracy, human rights, and political reform, Human Rights Watch said today. The People’s Court of Ho Chi Minh City is scheduled to hear their case on November 11, 2019.

The three, Chau Van Kham, Nguyen Van Vien, and Tran Van Quyen, are accused of “terrorism that aims to oppose the people’s administration” under article 113 of the penal code. Chau, a 70-year-old retired baker from Sydney, is also charged with “use of false documents” under article 341. The Australian government should redouble efforts to press for his release.

Police arrested Chau Van Kham and Nguyen Van Vien on January 13, 2019 in Ho Chi Minh City, and Tran Van Quyen on January 23 in Binh Duong province. All three men were accused of being affiliated with the overseas political party Viet Tan. Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security officially labeled Viet Tan a terrorist group in October 2016. Viet Tan has a history of resistance to the Vietnamese communist government in the 1980s, but more recently has said it is “committed to peaceful, nonviolent struggle”. So far, the government has not produced any evidence of violent intent or activities by the three men.

“The Communist Party of Vietnam has kept a tight control on power for more than 40 years and will not tolerate any political opposition,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “Vietnamese authorities arrest and imprison anyone they deem a threat to the Communist Party’s monopoly on power, and these three men are just the latest victims.”

Chau Van Kham is an Australian citizen. He served in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam prior to 1975. After the war was over, he was sent to a re-education camp for three years. He fled Vietnam by boat and went to Australia in 1983. According to the Vietnamese police, Chau Van Kham entered Vietnam through the Ha Tien border gate between Vietnam and Cambodia using a fake ID. Vietnamese police arrested him and Nguyen Van Vien when the two met in a hotel in Ho Chi Minh City on January 12 and charged them with “carrying out activities that aim to overthrow the people’s administration” under article 109 of the penal code. In July, the police decided to prosecute Chau Van Kham and his accomplice for “terrorism that aim to oppose the people’s administration.”

Nguyen Van Vien, 48, is a member of Brotherhood for Democracy, which was founded in April 2013 by the now-exiled Nguyen Van Dai and fellow activists “to defend human rights recognized by the Vietnam Constitution and international conventions” and “to promote the building of a democratic, progressive, civilized and just society for Vietnam.” According to the Brotherhood for Democracy, Nguyen Van Vien campaigned against the environmental destruction wrought by the Formosa company’s toxic waste spill in April 2016.

Little is known about Tran Van Quyen, 20, who is a camera installer in Binh Duong province. His brother Tran Van Cuong told a reporter at Radio Free Asia that after arresting Quyen, the police searched their house and told him to sign the search record, but did not provide any copy of the search record.

Vietnam frequently uses vaguely worded and loosely interpreted provisions in its penal code to imprison political and religious activists. As of November 2019, Human Rights Watch has documented that at least 138 people are behind bars for exercising basic rights.

Police have arrested and imprisoned a number of people for their alleged affiliation with Viet Tan, including environmental activist Le Dinh Luong, blogger Pham Minh Hoang, and pro-democracy campaigner Nguyen Van Oai.

According to Chau Van Kham’s son, from his January arrest until November 5, 2019, Chau Van Kham has had only one 30-minute meeting with his lawyer. In Vietnam, police commonly hold those suspected of so-called national security offenses “under investigation” for months without access to legal counsel.

“Being affiliated with a political party the Communist Party of Vietnam disapproves of is not a crime,” Pearson said. “The government of Vietnam should adopt a pluralist political system to curb the monopoly of power instead of punishing those who explore some alternatives.”

Chau Van Kham has had monthly consular visits from the Australian embassy, but the meetings are in the presence of prison officials and video recorded, which may hamper his ability to speak freely.

The Australian government has not pressed vigorously or publicly for his release. During a visit to Hanoi in August 2019, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said, “Australians need to abide by the laws of the countries which they visit. They must. They don’t get a leave pass from laws when they go into someone else’s country and commit crimes. That is not something that Australia can support or excuse. But we will always seek to support our citizens in these difficult circumstances.”

Meanwhile, Australia has deepened ties with Vietnam, signing a Strategic Partnership in 2018. Chau Van Kham’s son, Dennis Chau, told Human Rights Watch, “It’s nice that we have trading ties with Vietnam but what about the humanitarian aspect that they are forgetting about? I wish the Australian government would do more. He fled that country in a boat and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t want to be stuck there any longer.”

“The Australian government should openly speak up and defend its citizen,” said Pearson. “Vietnam is a country that frequently uses criminal laws to punish peaceful critics in violation of international law. Diplomatic pressure is urgently needed to protect the welfare of an Australian retiree who has already spent almost a year in a Vietnamese prison.”

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