As families gather to mark Christmas, these Australians remain detained overseas

A number of Australians will remain separated from their families this Christmas, as they face unknown fates in prisons and detention centres across the world.

Up until recently, among them was British-Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert who was released from prison in Iran just weeks ago.

She served two years and three months of a 10-year prison sentence after being accused of spying by the Iranian government – allegations she steadfastly denies.

Iranian authorities claimed three of the country’s citizens were released in exchange for Dr Gilbert-Moore, but the Australian Government has refused to confirm what, if any, arrangements led to her release. 

But while Dr Gilbert-Moore is now able to spend Christmas with her loved ones, others are still waiting to learn their fate.

Cheng Lei, journalist

High-profile business journalist and presenter Cheng Lei has been imprisoned in an unknown location in China since August.

Prior to her arrest, the Australian citizen hosted a business program for China’s government-run English language broadcaster CGTN where experts in China studies described her as a “bridge” between China and Australia.

Detained Australian journalist Cheng Lei.


The Chinese government says Ms Cheng was arrested on “national security grounds”, a catch-all offence often used to silence political dissidents.

It also revealed she was being detained in “residential surveillance at a designated location”, a type of detention reserved for high-level investigations. 

“It’s a very notorious form of detention. It can be regarded as the worst one around the world nowadays,” said Dr Feng, an associate professor in China studies at the University of Technology Sydney.

Australian consular officials have been permitted regular video meetings with Ms Cheng, most recently on 25 November. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) declined to provide further detail about her wellbeing, citing privacy obligations.

Chinese authorities are yet to reveal details of Ms Cheng’s alleged crime, with fears her ordeal could last many months to come. 

Yang Hengjun, writer

Australian writer and pro-democracy activist Yang Hengjun is approaching the second anniversary of his imprisonment in China, but in a message released on Wednesday he said he was “stronger than ever”.

The 55-year-old was arrested at Guangzhou Airport in January 2019 after arriving for a trip, but he wasn’t charged until earlier this year when Chinese authorities accused him of endangering national security by assisting an unidentified espionage organisation.

Prominent Chinese-Australian writer Yang Hengjun has been detained in China since January 2019.

Prominent Chinese-Australian writer Yang Hengjun has been detained in China since January 2019.


Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne has previously dismissed the charges against Dr Yang, stating there was “no basis” for any allegation he was spying for Australia. Dr Yang has also repeatedly asserted his innocence. 

Despite this, he is now facing the possibility of a lengthy prison sentence. Reports have surfaced that his trial, due to begin in January 2021, had been delayed by three months.

In his message, the University of Technology Sydney professor said he had also been subject to torture and hundreds of hours of interrogation since his arrest.

Similarly to Ms Cheng, Chinese authorities are yet to provide detail of the charges Dr Yang is facing, but in the message, he remained confident the Chinese court system would deliver him justice.

“Whether or not they judge me guilty will say a lot about whether the court is governed by rule of law or by pure absolute power,” he said.

“I think they will give me justice.”

Lukman Thalib, public health professor, and Ismail Talib, security engineer

Australian nationals Lukman Thalib and his son, Ismail Talib, have been detained in an unknown location in Qatar for almost five months but their plight was only publicly revealed earlier this month.

The pair were both working in Qatar when at least six people dressed in plain clothes barged into their security complex on 27 July, “kidnapping-style”, and arrested them, Dr Thalib’s daughter Maryam Talib told SBS News.

Australian Professor Lukman Thalib (right) and his son, Ismail Talib, have been detained in Qatar for almost five months.

Professor Lukman Thalib (right) and his son, Ismail Talib.


Lukman Thalib is a public health professor who was assisting with the country’s coronavirus response, while his son was employed as a security engineer for broadcaster Al Jazeera.

Advocates for the family believe the arrests are part of a “collective punishment” for the family after another of Dr Thalib’s sons, Australia-based Ahmed Talib, was accused of providing financial support to Al-Qaeda by the United States government.

No charges have been laid in regards to the allegations, which came to light three months after the arrest of the father and son. The Australian Federal Police executed search warrants on Dr Thalib’s Doncaster home in Victoria in October.

Recently, London-based advocacy organisation CAGE, which is assisting the family, said the father and son had been among prisoners transported to a detention centre in Doha.

The family say they fear for their father, who has health issues, and for their brother’s safety amid concerns they have been subject to torture.

“They are slowly killing my father. He is an innocent man. This is the last straw for us as a family,” Ms Talib said last week.

“I pray that the Australian Government immediately heed our calls to secure the release of my father and brother and that any action they take will not be one made too late.”

Van Kham Chau, retired baker

Retired Sydney baker Van Kham Chau is currently serving a 12-year prison sentence in Vietnam after he was convicted of terrorism offences late last year.

The 71-year-old has repeatedly refuted the allegations against him, which include raising money for anti-state activities, joining anti-Vietnam protests in Australia, and recruiting members for the US pro-democracy group Viet Tan, considered a terrorist organisation by the Vietnamese government.

Vietnamese Australia Van Kham Chau

Australian citizen Van Kham Chau has been sentence to 12 years in prison in Vietnam for “terrorism”.


After fleeing Vietnam by boat in 1982, he was arrested on a trip back to his country of birth in January 2018. 

During the trip, which he took to gather first-hand details about Vietnam’s human right’s record, he used a fake ID card to enter the country. 

“The terrorism charge is a very serious charge and he has committed no such offence, there is absolutely no evidence to support that charge,” Mr Chau’s Australian lawyer Dan Nguyen said following his sentencing.

Mr Chau’s wife, Quynh Trang Truong, has previously told SBS News she fears for her husband’s wellbeing due to his poor health and called on the Australian Government to do more to secure his relief.

“I feel the Australian Government probably hasn’t done much for my husband,” she said.

Amnesty International considers Mr Chau a “prisoner of conscience”, meaning he has been detained purely on the basis of his political beliefs.

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