His boyish frame concealed beneath a loose T-shirt, the youngest Australian serving time for a drug offense in an overseas jail stepped out of the juvenile wing of Prey Sar prison where he’s been sentenced to spend the next 13 years of his life and adjusted his glasses on Monday.
“It’s really bright out here,” said Sydney resident Gordon Vuong, who marked his 17th birthday last month in the crowded Prey Sar prison cell which he has shared with 33 Cambodian minors since he was sentenced in May for heroin trafficking.
In an interview at the prison’s outdoor visiting area, Vuong, who was arrested at Phnom Penh International Airport on Jan 22 with 2.1 kg of heroin taped to his chest and stomach, asserted that he was coerced to act as a drug mule by men who were threatening his family.
Vuong claims he was blackmailed after a mysterious group of men, who he claims were friends of his two convicted accomplices, stole his passport in December while he was visiting his aunt in Hong Kong on a school holiday.
“They started calling my aunt and telling her they had my passport number,” said the teenager, who said he had no criminal record back in Australia.
“Then they started saying that my family in Hong Kong and in Australia would be in danger if I didn’t help them.”
Maintaining that he felt he had no choice, Vuong said he caught a flight to Phnom Penh where he met up with Cambodian-Australian Yen Karat, 26, and Cambodian national Ek Sam Oeun, 47, who were sentenced to 18 years and 10 years respectively for their role in the crime.
He said that he stayed at a Phnom Penh hotel watching TV and sleeping for nearly two weeks before he was taken to the airport on Jan 22 with the heroin strapped to his chest.
He claimed that he was drugged by the men beforehand and was not thinking clearly, but he acknowledged that he knew he was carrying drugs.
“I tried to nudge the shoulder of one of the airport officers to tell him [about the drugs] but he just waved me on,” Vuong said.
He was arrested as he was about to board a flight back to Hong Kong.
Vuong’s lawyer, Mon Keosivin, said that the case had already reached the Appeals Court and that he expected a hearing in October.
The soft-spoken teenager said that he hopes the Australian government can do something to help him in the meantime, such as transferring him to an Australian prison, but, he added: “I don’t know what they can do.”
Recent comments by Australian Prime Minister John Howard indicate that Vuong’s government won’t get involved in the case.
Howard was quoted in a recent Kyodo news agency story as saying that Australians on drug charges “can’t expect any mercy” from Asian governments and that “they can’t expect the [Australian] government to bail them out.”
Vuong’s case comes in the wake of several high-profile drug convictions of Australians in Indonesia.
Recently, the Australian government took the unusual step of
e-mailing more than 3,000 Australians in Indonesia to tell them they couldn’t expect aid if they were caught with drugs.
A spokesman with the Australian Embassy said Monday that embassy officials were providing consular support to Vuong and his family and making sure “the prisoner is not being mistreated.”
Vuong, an only child, said that he misses his mother, who works as a bookbinder in Sydney.
“The hardest part is being away from my family,” he said.