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Aussie youth shares cell with 27
THERE are 27 others in my cell. I am number 28. Rapists, murderers - mainly robbers."

These are the words 16-year-old Gordon Vuong, of New South Wales, uses to describe his new life in the squalid Cambodian prison where he will spend the next 13 years. Sleeping on concrete and subsisting on thin gruel and rice, the Campsie teenager from Christian Brothers Lewisham is the youngest of 118 Australians serving prison terms overseas.

Speaking publicly for the first time since being sentenced to 13 years jail last month, Gordon Vuong said he was scared and losing hope.

"My family try to give me money to buy extra food when they can. If you don't have that, you eat plain prison rice, which is contaminated with chemicals and gives you skin problems."

The Australian-born teenager shares two buckets of drinking water each day with his 27 cellmates because there is no running water and he survives on putrid prison soup.

Vuong has so far spent six months in the juvenile wing of the notorious prison on the outskirts of Phnom Penh which is home to about 1000 prisoners, including terrorists and pedophiles.

Prey Sar is also home to former Khmer Rouge leader, Nuon Paet, who is serving life for the 1994 murder of Australian traveller David Wilson.

Vuong was arrested with 2.1 kilograms of heroin taped to his chest at Phnom Penh airport on January 22 and was sentenced last month.

Two other men, Cambodian national Ek Samoeun, 47, and Cambodian-born Australian Yen Karath, 25, were also arrested in the smuggling attempt.

The former Year 10 Christian Brothers Lewisham student is now afraid of reprisals from the men, one who is being held at the same prison awaiting trial.

"I'm so scared. He (Karath) isn't a person to mess with. You can see that by looking at his face ... we aren't friends."

Vuong's visibly frail mother, Hong Ta, was in Cambodia for her only child's trial.

Back in Sydney, the single mother has returned to work 12-hour days at a printing factory.

Vuong's lawyer, Mon Keosivin, has lodged an appeal claiming his young and naive client was drugged and forced to act as a "drug mule".

Keosivin, who communicates with Vuong through a translator, said no witnesses were called on behalf of the adolescent and key parts of his statement were omitted during the trial.

"The lawyer doesn't seem to do much, I don't think he can help," Vuong said.

"The embassy told my mum she had to pick a lawyer off the list, so she did. He said don't worry, you are too young to get a heavy sentence, but then I did anyway. They gave me 13 years."

The teenager claims he was blackmailed by an older man who had threatened his family and took his passport while on holiday in Hong Kong with a friend in December.

"I was scared," Vuong said.

"They were originally an Australian-based gang but now they moved to Hong Kong. I didn't know anyone. I didn't know what to do."

His shell-shocked former classmates have written letters of support to their friend.

"I was pretty surprised, everyone was surprised," a school friend said. "No one was really expecting it - because he didn't seem like the type to do that. He was good at school, pretty smart. He was just like a normal student, nothing weird."

Neighbours Ivan Callaghan, 67, and his wife Audrey, 73, have known Vuong since he was a baby.

"He's been like a grandson to us for 14 years," Mrs Callaghan said. "He's studious, well-spoken and well-dressed. I'd say he was just your average Aussie kid, but he was nicer than that."

Australian Council for Civil Liberties spokesman Kevin O'Rourke will meet the Federal Attorney-General Phillip Ruddock tomorrow to discuss the Vuong case.

Teen jailing prompts treaty talks
Mark Dodd

THE desperate plight of a Sydney teenager sentenced to 13 years' jail for heroin smuggling has prompted the Howard Government to begin negotiations for a prisoner exchange treaty with Cambodia.

Justice Minister Chris Ellison said the Government was keen to help 16-year-old Gordon Vuong, who has spent the past five months in a squalid Cambodian prison.

"It is of concern that we have a juvenile Australian national who has been sentenced to 13 years in Cambodia," Senator Ellison said yesterday.

"We are certainly addressing the question of the transfer of prisoners with Cambodia, as well as other areas of co-operation.

"Leaving aside the question of guilt and the offence involved, where you have a juvenile there are different considerations."

Vuong, from the southwestern Sydney suburb of Campsie, was sentenced on May 4 after being caught at Phnom Penh airport in January with 2kg of heroin taped to his body.

He admitted his guilt but claimed he had been forced to act as a "drug mule".

His Cambodian lawyer said that while Vuong was staying with his aunt in Hong Kong he was taken to a hotel by an unidentified tall European man, who organised his flight to Phnom Penh.

He said two men had threatened to kill Vuong's aunt unless he helped them carry an unspecified substance from Phnom Penh.

The frightened teenager had tried to seek help from airport police before boarding a flight to Hong Kong, but was arrested instead.

Two other men, Cambodian Ek Samoeun, 47, and Cambodian-born Australian Yen Karath, 25, were also arrested and identified as being responsible for the smuggling attempt.

Vuong's lawyer said his client was young and gullible and "could easily fall for someone else's tricks".

Vuong's Sydney neighbours have described him as a studious well-spoken young man who had excelled at tennis before he left Australia for Hong Kong last year.

Senator Ellison said he would like to begin bilateral talks with a number of countries, including Cambodia and Vietnam, which has some of the toughest anti-drug laws in Asia, to secure prisoner exchange treaties.

"We would be interested in negotiating a transfer of prisoner treaty with Vietnam, but of course we have a number of those negotiations which are in progress at the moment," Senator Ellison said.

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