A group of international parliamentarians and activists has signed a letter to Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh urging Hanoi to release Chau Van Kham, an activist detained for four years in Vietnam.
The Australian citizen was arrested Jan. 13, 2019, after traveling to Vietnam to meet local civil society groups as a representative of the Vietnam Renovation and Revolutionary Party (Viet Tan).
Viet Tan 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 claims it is a terrorist organization which aims to topple Vietnam’s government.
Kham was sentenced to 12 years in prison for “terrorism to oppose the people’s government.” Brotherhood for Democracy members Tran Van Quyen and Nguyen Van Vien , who the government said were in contact with him, were also accused of terrorism and sentenced to 10 and 11 years respectively.
The 32 signatories of the open letter described the three as peaceful activists, telling the prime minister: “Your government has not produced a single piece of evidence that these men engaged in any terrorist activities.”
It also pointed to a report last June by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention that said Kham’s arrest and detention lacked a legal basis and “resulted from the peaceful exercise of his rights to freedom of conscience and belief and freedom of opinion and expression, as well as the right to take part in the conduct of public affairs,” contrary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The Australian governments of Scott Morrison and current Prime Minister Anthony Albanese have raised Kham’s detention with Vietnam more than 70 times.
Last June, Foreign Minister Penny Wong requested Kham’s release with then-President Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh and her counterpart Bui Thanh Son.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese also raised Kham’s case in a meeting with Prime Minister Chinh on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit in Cambodia in November.
Professor Carl Thayer from the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra told RFA Kham’s case could create increasing friction between the two countries.
“This year Kham’s case is likely to be an irritant in bilateral relations as both sides move to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of diplomatic relations,” he said.
“Plans are underway for a series of high-level visits including reciprocal visits by Australia’s Governor General and Vietnam’s new president and Vietnam’s prime minister. The proposed high-level visits by Vietnamese leaders are likely to be lightning rods for public protests.”
Window of opportunity
Human rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai, co-founder and president of the Brotherhood for Democracy, said after four years in prison Vietnam has an opportunity to release him on legal, rather than humanitarian grounds.
“According to the Law on Execution of Criminal Judgments and the Law on Amnesty of Vietnam, when one-third of the sentence is executed, one can be granted amnesty, with reduced sentence or exempted from the rest of the prison sentence,” he said.
The 32 signatories – including Member of the European Parliament Saskia Bricmont, Canadian MP Judy A. Sgro, and Swiss parliamentarian and chairman of the Swiss-Vietnamese Committee Sébastien Desfayes – said that as a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council for the 2023-2025 term, Vietnam has an obligation to protect and promote human rights, and to respect international conventions on human rights.
“Therefore, we add our voices to urge your government to respect international conventions on human rights by immediately releasing Mr. Chau Van Kham,” the letter said.
“The place of this 73-year-old activist is not in prison but with his family, in Australia, particularly in this period of the Lunar New Year.”
RFA phoned Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs seeking comment on Kham’s continued detention but the calls went unanswered.
Translated by RFA Vietnamese. Edited by Mike Firn.