Kylie Moore-Gilbert, Julian Assange and Cheng Lei (Images: AAP/Reuters/Supplied)

The Australian government often stresses quiet diplomacy is the best tactic to get detained citizens out of international prisons — but in many cases, it simply has not worked.

Crikey takes a look at Australia’s political prisoners locked up abroad.

Chau Van Kham

Detained: Vietnam.
Charge: Terrorism.

In January last year Kham, a 71-year-old retired baker from Sydney, was arrested in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. After a brief trial lasting only four-and-a-half hours, he was convicted of terrorism and sentenced to 12 years in prison. 

Kham is a member of the international pro-democracy group The Reform Revolutionary Party of Vietnam, or the Viet Tan — an opposing political party to the current communist government. The court focused on these ties in his sentencing. 

In June this year, he was moved from Ho Chi Minh City to a more remote prison in Ham Tan district in the Binh Thuan province. 

Kham’s detention has received little media attention

Yang Hengjun

Detained: China.
Charge: Espionage.

Yang is a former Chinese intelligence officer who left China to move to Australia in 2000. From Sydney, he wrote political blogs and spy novels.

On January 23, 2019, Yang was detained at Guangzhou airport. He was supposed to travel on to Shanghai where he would wait for Australian visas for himself, his wife and daughter to be processed. 

Yang was held without charge for seven months until he was formally arrested in August this year on espionage charges. 

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has serious concerns for his welfare, with reports that he has been subjected to daily interrogations with his arms and legs shackled. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has denied Yang worked as a spy for Australia. 

Cheng Lei

Detained: China.
Charge: None.

The Australian journalist was detained in Beijing in mid-August. Lei has been placed under “residential surveillance” — a type of detention which can last up to six months, with the detainee cut off from lawyers and family.

Lei anchored the state-run China Global Television Network. 

The reasons for her detention are unknown, though there has been speculation that a Facebook post got her into trouble. In March she wrote a post about a magazine censored from publishing a profile piece on a doctor in Wuhan who had been punished after raising alarm about the coronavirus. 

DFAT has been providing Lei with consular assistance

Julian Assange

Charge: Breaching bail; indicted on espionage and hacking charges.
Detained: London.

Assange is currently jailed in Belmarsh Prison in south-east London. To avoid extradition to Sweden, where he was wanted in connection with sexual offences allegations (which have since been dropped), Assange stayed protected in the Ecuadorian embassy in the UK for seven years, until he was evicted.

His 50-week sentence for breaching his bail conditions ends later this month.

Assange awaits an extradition hearing, starting next week, to find out whether he will be sent to the US to face 18 charges. The counts address his dealings with former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning while a recent indictment accuses Assange of being a hacker. 

Kylie Moore-Gilbert

Detained: Iran.
Charge: Espionage.

Moore-Gilbert, an Australian academic at the University of Melbourne’s Asia Institute was convicted of espionage in a secret trial and sentenced to 10 years prison in Iran.

The Islamic studies lecturer has spent more than 700 days in prison since her 2018 arrest. She had travelled to Iran to attend an academic conference. 

She reportedly spends 23 hours a day in solitary confinement in what’s dubbed Iran’s most dangerous prison. DFAT has unsuccessfully engaged in quiet diplomacy to push for her release.

Should Australia be protecting citizens from overseas regimes? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say section.