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(Sydney) – The Australian government should publicly and privately press the Vietnamese government to overturn the convictions of a detained Australian and two of his Vietnamese colleagues, Human Rights Watch said in a letter to Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, that was released today.

Chau Van Kham. © 2017 Private

In November 2019, the Australian, Chau Van Kham, and his colleagues, Nguyen Van Vien and Tran Van Quyen, were sentenced to 12, 11, and 10 years respectively for their involvement with the overseas Viet Tan party, which Hanoi considers a terrorist organization. The party, however, has explicitly rejected violence, stating that it is “convinced that nonviolent means are the most effective for generating maximum civic participation … to contribute to Vietnam’s modernization and reform.” Chau Van Kham is appealing his sentence. He has had hardly any access to legal representation and his consular visits are monitored.

“Payne has rightly condemned the detention conditions of the Australian writer Yang Hengjun and urged his release, so it is puzzling that there has been no similar statement raising concerns about Chau Van Kham’s treatment even though he has been detained since January,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director. “There are serious concerns about lack of due process and the severity of the sentences, following what can only be described as a ‘show trial.’”

On December 2, Minister Payne called for Hengjun’s release and described his treatment by Chinese authorities as “unacceptable.” She had also been vocal in speaking out on the case of the Bahraini-Australian football player Hakeem al-Araibi.

Vietnamese authorities prosecuted the three men for “terrorism that aims to overthrow the people’s administration,” accusing them of ties to Viet Tan. Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security officially labeled Viet Tan a terrorist group in October 2016. Viet Tan had a history of resistance to the Vietnamese communist government in the 1980s, but more recently has said it is “committed to peaceful, nonviolent struggle.” The party describes its mission as “to overcome dictatorship and build the foundation for a sustainable democracy.” The activities listed in the indictment and attributed to Viet Tan, such as making travel arrangements to Vietnam, organizing leaflets for protests, expanding its network, writing articles, and sending people abroad for training, do not amount to terrorism.

“These men are not terrorists,” Pearson said. “They are being prosecuted simply for their affiliation with a foreign political group deemed a threat to the Communist Party of Vietnam.”

The trial lasted only 4.5 hours, suggesting that the verdict was pre-determined. It included three other defendants – Bui Van Kien, Nguyen Thi Anh, and Tran Thi Nhai – who were prosecuted for “making fake stamps, documents of offices, organizations,” and convicted to between three and four years in prison. With six defendants, the court would barely have had enough time to carry out routine processes including reading the names and charges, let alone to listen to presentation of evidence and defense arguments in a fair and unbiased manner. All Vietnamese judges are required to be members of the Communist Party of Vietnam. According to Chau Van Kham’s Australian lawyer, some family members were refused entry to the courtroom.

Chau Van Kham has had monthly consular visits from the Australian embassy, but prison officials and other Vietnamese government officials have been present, and the meetings have been video recorded, which may have hampered his ability to speak freely.

“The short duration of the trial, the nature of the prosecution’s evidence, the lack of access to legal representation – there are myriad due process concerns that the Australian government should be raising with Vietnamese authorities,” Pearson said. “Chau Van Kham is 70 years old and has prostate issues. The notorious conditions inside Vietnam’s prisons make it critical for him to be released sooner rather than later.”

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