Dennis Chau, son of Vietnamese political prisoner Van Kham Chau who was detained in January 2019 while visiting the country from Australia and given a 12-year prison sentence, addresses the 12th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy — see quotes below, followed by full prepared remarks.
On learning of his father’s arrest:
“It was a week before my 29th birthday. I called and, to my surprise, there was no ring.”
“My brother told me: “Dad had been missing for the past couple of days. He had gone to Vietnam.”
“Imagine a loved one, being snatched off the street. No confirmation, no explanation, no update. He was already missing a few days at this point.”
On his father’s trial and jail sentence:
“The entire charade was rushed and improper. He was assigned a lawyer who was allowed a one-hour session with my father in-person prior to the trial. My father was given a 1 hour to consult with his lawyer after being subject to investigation for 11 months.”
“Neither the media nor family members were allowed access to the courtroom. The trial was wrapped in 4 hours, in what was a wholesale, predetermined verdict. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison.”
On his father’s treatment in Vietnamese prison:
“He’s held in a cell for 23 hours of the day with 1 hour of exercise permitted.”
“His mental health is deteriorating.”
“We’ve made requests for family visitation, none of which have been granted.”
“My father turned 70 last year, and so with a 12-year sentence, he’ll be 82 when he is released. It is effectively a death sentence.”
My name is Dennis Chau, I’m the son of jailed Australian Activist, Chau Van Kham. I’m here to raise awareness about the poor human rights issues in Vietnam, give my father a voice, and tell you my side of the story.
Early last year, my father, now 70 years-old, was in Vietnam on behalf of Viet Tan, an international organisation promoting reform through peaceful and political means.
So how did I find out what happened to my father?
It was a week before my 29th birthday. At that point, I had been living abroad in London for a couple of years and it was typical that I’d call my father every few weeks just to see what he’d been up to. I called and, to my surprise,there was no ring tone. I’d try my mum next, and when she answered, she sounded anxious, her voice tremored. I knew something was up.
At first, I could tell that my mum didn’t want to tell me. And she didn’t. I pestered her to the point of getting angry. I don’t like secrets. She put my brother on the phone.I have vivid memories of this conversation. I remember it well.
I could overhear my brother talking to my mum, “we need to let him know, we can’t hide this from him.” And finally, he told me: “Dad has been missing for the past couple of days. He had gone to Vietnam.”
I panicked and then paused “What do you mean he went to Vietnam, what do you mean he’s missing?”.
He replied “That’s all we know. We know the police had visited auntie’s house, questioning her on what she knew about dad…that’s all we know. No one has spoken to him in the past couple of days”. My heart immediately sank.
Imagine a loved one, being snatched off the street. No confirmation, no explanation, no update. He was already missing days at this point. Can you imagine?
I had an idea of what my father was up to since he had retired.I knew it involved promoting democracy and human rights. I knew from what I read in the papers that such advocacy and holding the government to account for its transgressions would not sit well with Vietnamese authorities.
So what happened in the year that followed his arrest?
After hearing of my father’s detention, I learned that he was arrested on suspicion of committing crimes to overthrow the Vietnamese government. We were told via the Australian consulate that he’d be held for a 4-month investigation period. This meant no family visitors, no lawyers and the only update we had was an email from the Australian consulate, which came only once a month.
My mother was allowed to write non-descript letters which were handled by prison officials before being passed on to my father. The consulate visits were flanked by prison correctional officers. My father’s responses were also non-descript and contained little-to-no information. These letters, which censored my father’s real voice and character, contrasted greatly with his usual outgoing self. With this in mind, I feared deeply that anything said against the administration would result in further punishments. They had succeeded in silencing him.
His 4-month investigation period was extended for another 8 months, adding to my family’s anxiety caused by his absence. . We were abruptly informed about his trial, which was not given any semblance of due process. The entire charade was rushed and improper. He was assigned a lawyer who was allowed a 1-hour session with my father in-person prior to the trial. I would like to repeat that. My father was given 1 hour to consult with his lawyer after being subject to investigation for 11 months.
He was tried alongside other members associated with the Viet Tan rights group. Neither the media nor family members were allowed access to the courtroom. They were held waiting outside by the gates, only to see a glimpse of their loved ones’ fate. In quick succession, the trial was wrapped up in 4 hours, in what was a wholesale, predetermined verdict. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison. The whole affair left me asking: how could this injustice be done to my father, a person whose only crime was calling for a more free, democratic Vietnam.
What’s his situation now?
The next day I saw a photo in the paper of my father in the courtroom. He looked defiant, but much older than I last remember. Jail hadn’t been good to him. This was the first I’d seen of him all year.
In the monthly consulate emails, his health is raised as part of the correspondence. From what little information I do know, his condition is not great and the list of illnesses continues to grow.
He’s held in a cell 23 hours of the day with 1 hour of exercise permitted.
His mental health is deteriorating.
We’ve made requests for family visitation, none of which have been granted.
My father turned 70 last year, and so with a 12-year sentence, he’ll be 82 when he is released. Factoring in prison conditions and poor access to medical treatments, I don’t believe I’ll ever see him alive, a free man. It’s effectively a death sentence.
So why did my father go back to Vietnam in the first place?
My father isn’t a fool, he would’ve known of the dangers of returning to Vietnam, but he went anyway.
My father came to Australia with nothing but the clothes on his back as a refugee after the Vietnam War. He worked hard all his life to make something for him and his family in his new adopted home. He grew to be a proud Australian, proud of the freedoms we take for granted.
I feel as though when my father left the land he loved, he left something behind. He knew that the freedoms we have here were virtues that his people lost. I knew he felt for the people of Vietnam. This is why he felt compelled to advocate and affect change. He’d never abandon his sense of duty to call for a more open, free society in Vietnam.
So what can you do to help?
Right now, at this moment, it is devastating that I cannot end my father’s 12-year sentence, that I do not know the next time we will see each other.
But, there are ways that you can help. I hope the international community will continue to highlight my father’s case to the Scott Morrison and Australian government. The Australian government, must be held to a higher standard, as a western democracy, to not put trade relations above basic human rights – the ones that we hold so dear.
As trading partners of Vietnam, you are also accountable for the treatment of its people… when you sign that trade agreement.
I’ll be unwavering in my mission to keep my father’s voice and story alive and I hope that you may feel compelled to do the same.
It is silence that breeds inaction. It is silence that lets these governments know that it is okay to continue with their ways.
Thank you for listening.
12th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, UN Opening, Monday, February 17, 2020
On his father’s unfair trial and sentence:
“My father was not given any due process. He was allowed only one hour with his assigned lawyer before the trial and sentenced to 12 years in prison.”
“My father’s prison conditions are effectively a death sentence, all for the crime of promoting human rights.”
On fighting for democracy in Vietnam:
“My father came to Australia with nothing but the clothes on his back.”
“He grew to be proud of the freedoms we take for granted in Australia and he felt compelled to help the people of Vietnam.”