A retired baker has returned home to Sydney after being released from prison in Vietnam, where he was serving 12 years on terrorism charges for being a member of a banned pro-democracy group.
Acting Australian Prime Minister Richard Marles said Chau Van Kham was released on humanitarian grounds and “in the spirit of friendship” between Australia and Vietnam.
“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 Tuesday.
Kham, a 74-year-old Australian-Vietnamese national, was arrested in 2019 hours after arriving in Vietnam where he met a fellow pro-democracy activist, according to Amnesty International.
“The only evidence for this charge presented by the Vietnamese authorities during the trial was his membership with Viet Tan, an organization that the Vietnamese government lists as a ‘terrorist group,” Amnesty said in a statement.
The Vietnamese government declared the California-based Viet Tan, or Vietnam Reform Party, a terrorist organization in 2016, accusing it of recruiting and training armed operatives.
At the time it warned that anyone found to be involved with the group would be deemed a co-conspirator.
On its website, Viet Tan says it’s committed to the “peaceful, nonviolent struggle” for democracy and aims to “mobilize the power of the people” within Vietnam and among the diaspora, including in the United States and Australia, where it operates freely.
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese traveled to Vietnam last month to mark 50 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
He later told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that he had discussed a potential prisoner swap involving Kham with Vietnam’s communist leaders.
In a statement Tuesday, Kham’s lawyer Dan Nguyen said his wife and two children thanked their supporters and Australian officials for their work in securing his release.
“We share the happy news that Mr Chau Van Kham is well and has returned to his family today,” the statement said, according to Amnesty.
During Kham’s incarceration, his family held grave concerns for his health.
“He spent long periods of time isolated from family and consular staff due to pandemic restrictions,” Elaine Pearson, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
Pearson said Kham was one of more than 150 political prisoners detained in Vietnam for peaceful acts of free expression. Others include Pham Doan Trang and environmental activists Mai Phan Loi, Dang Dinh Bach, and Hoang Thi Minh Hong, she said.
“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,” Pearson added.