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ABC News: Meet Lawyer Dan Phuong Nguyen who helped a democracy activist walk free from Vietnamese prison

Dan Phuong Nguyen describes herself as a "down the road" suburban lawyer from south-west Sydney, but her advocacy for local justice has turned global with a high-profile political prisoner case.


Earlier this month, Ms Nguyen's client and democracy activist, Chau Van Kham, walked free from a Vietnamese jail after serving four years of a 12-year sentence on terrorism charges.


Dan Phuong Nguyen has been a lawyer for more than 30 years.

Mr Chau was released under a prisoner transfer agreement with Australia after years of campaigning by his family, Australia's Vietnamese community and human rights organisations.


"[Kham] hadn't done anything," Ms Nguyen told 7.30. "He hadn't committed any act of terrorism."


It's been an extraordinary time for Ms Nguyen, who took up the case shortly before Mr Chau's trial in late 2019.

Dan Phuong Nguyen says she never gave up in her fight for Mr Chau's freedom.(ABC News: Erin Handley)

Until then, she'd dealt with everyday battles, from leases and traffic offences to conveyancing and divorces.


"I've never had a case like this; it came to me by chance."


Mr Chau's wife, Thi Quynh Trang Chau, was a long-time client and called Ms Nguyen for help.


"She was very scared, she was desperate," Ms Nguyen said.


"For a 71-year-old man to be convicted and sentenced to 12 years in a Vietnamese jail was almost a death sentence for him."


After Mr Chau was sentenced, Ms Nguyen and Mrs Chau went to Canberra to lobby the Australian government to fight for his release.

Chau Van Kham (centre) with his wife Trang (left) and lawyer Dan Phuong Nguyen.(ABC News: Jason Om)

"I went everywhere, I knocked on every door, and I talked to anybody that would talk to me about it," she said. 

"But in 2021, I sort of thought, there's nowhere else for me to go. That was a low point for me. I was really scared that his case was forgotten and he may never come home."

Ms Nguyen joined forces with religious leaders, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and with Justice Abroad, which took the case to the UN.

A UN working group last year found Vietnam had arbitrarily detained Mr Chau and violated his human rights.

"I kept going. I never gave up," Ms Nguyen said.

From refugee to fighting global injustice

Dan Phuong Nguyen as a young girl.

In 1977, at the age of 12, Ms Nguyen fled Vietnam by boat and arrived in Australia with her parents and five siblings after a month in a Malaysian refugee camp.

"This little boat on a big sea ... there were a lot of people on the boat, lots of crying, lots of screaming and shouting. Every time we saw a boat nearby we would scream, 'SOS'," she said. 

"We were very scared we would die on the sea, and not find land.

"The biggest challenge [of living in Australia] was the language, and then throughout the years I learned English, went to university, did law, and here I am."

A classically-trained pianist, Ms Nguyen had no desire for the law but was pushed by her father, who was a member of Amnesty International.

Dan Phuong Nguyen runs her practice from her home.(ABC News: Jason Om)

Now, with two offices in Sydney's southwest, she's a fierce advocate for the Vietnamese community, which she said is marginalised by the law.

"I've seen clients that come to me and tell me a story and say, 'Oh no, I want to plead guilty because I can't deal with the law, I don't know what to do, I don't have the money', so there's the injustice, there's the disadvantage.

"They don't know the law and they're scared.

"If they don't have the money to fight it, or if they don't have the determination to fight it, they might just settle for less than what they're entitled to."

Ms Nguyen told 7.30 she'd like to see what she could do for other Australian human rights cases overseas.

Vietnam criticised for human rights abuse

For many Australians, Vietnam is just another colourful stop on their travel itinerary, but for some members of the Vietnamese community, a trip back might mean not coming home.

Human Rights Watch ranks the Communist one-party state poorly, with rights activists facing intimidation and arbitrary arrest.

Mr Chau is a member of the democracy group Viet Tan, which operates legally in Australia but is branded a terrorist organisation in Vietnam.

Speaking to 7.30 at his home in south-west Sydney, he showed no signs of his ordeal and remained defiant.

Chau Van Kham was held for four years on terrorism charges, which human rights advocates say were a sham.

Mr Chau said he entered Vietnam on false identification to meet up with other democracy activists.

"I will continue to resist," Mr Chau said through a translator.

And when questioned about whether he held any fears while in jail, he did not crack.

"From the beginning when my prison sentence began to when I was released, truly, I never felt fear," he said.

"I felt like I was doing the right thing and the government was committing injustices."

The Viet Tan strongman relented a little when asked about his family: "I missed them, but I wasn't sad."

In his mind, his wife Trang and their two adult sons would endure despite his absence.

In the four years he was jailed, Mrs Chau suffered, keeping herself busy around the house and volunteering to stave off the loneliness during the worst of Sydney's pandemic lockdowns.

Then came the death of her 97-year-old mother, who would never see her son-in-law again.

At the time of Mr Chau's arrest in early 2019, Mrs Chau had gone with her sons to the arrivals hall at Sydney Airport to pick up her husband, but he didn't show.

They waited a few days before reporting him missing to Auburn police.

Twice a day, Mrs Chau, a Buddhist, burned incense and prayed for her husband's safe return.

"I was very sad," Mrs Chau told 7.30 through a translator. "I felt like I was going to faint. I cried so much.

"I thought if people on the outside were not supporting and advocating for him to be freed, I would never see him again."

As Mr Chau readjusts to life back home, the Vietnamese community held a celebration for him at the weekend in Bonyrigg.

"Since day one, our community worked tirelessly to lobby for his release," Paul Huy Nguyen from the Vietnamese Community of Australia NSW told 7.30.

"[We] welcome [him back] to the free world."

Mr Chau may have lost four years of his freedom, but to some in the community, he went to jail to fight for the democratic cause and got out.

"He's a hero!" declared a monk at the welcome-back party. "He fought for the freedom of Vietnam."

Source: ABC News


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