Mark Dodd and Liam Cochrane
SENTENCED to serve 13 years in a squalid Cambodian jail for drug trafficking, Sydney teenager Gordon Vuong sleeps on concrete, misses his mother and wants John Howard to help bring him home.
In an exclusive interview with The Australian, the Campsie high school student maintained his innocence, saying he was forced to act as a drug mule after threats were made against his mother in Sydney and aunt in Hong Kong.
Vuong, who turned 17 on August 2, is the youngest Australian in an overseas jail for drug offences.
Arrested in January at Phnom Penh airport trying to board a Hong Kong flight with 2kg of heroin taped to his stomach, Vuong was convicted in May and sentenced to 13 years in jail.
Vuong is being held at Correctional Centre-2 for juveniles, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, where he shares a 4mx8m cell with 32 men.
"The thing is that I pity my mum," he said. "It's not that cheap for her coming to Cambodia from Australia."
Travel costs are not the only expense. On a visit in March she was asked by jail guards to pay a bribe of $US780 ($1000) if she wished to see her son.
Federal Justice Minister Chris Ellison said it was unacceptable for the teenager to be in a Phnom Penh jail and he would try to negotiate his transfer to Australia.
Senator Ellison was unable to say how long this might take but Vuong said he was not expecting any help soon.
Wearing round glasses and dressed in a white polo shirt and slacks, the teenager looks more like a science geek than a hardened criminal.
The prison guards refer to him as Vanda, the Khmer word for glasses.
Vuong is polite, quietly spoken and speaks perfect English, a legacy of his years at Christian Brothers College at Lewisham in Sydney. He said he had a good academic record but stopped his studies at Year 10 after a dispute with a teacher, who he said disliked Asians.
His Campsie neighbours Ivan Callaghan, 67, and his wife Audrey, 73, have known Vuong since he was two and regard him as a step-son. They told The Australian that the teenager began skipping classes and fell into bad company. Last October they were called to Canterbury Hospital where Vuong had been brought by ambulance suffering the symptoms of a drug overdose.
In December he suddenly flew overseas, saying he was going to Hong Kong to visit his aunt. The next news was of his arrest in January in Cambodia.
Vuong admitted he knew he was carrying drugs but repeated his lawyer's account of events that he had become nervous and tried to inform airport police about what was happening moments before he was to have boarded the flight.
"I went up to one policeman. He was standing in front of me and I sort of tapped him on the back but he didn't speak English. I told him: I can't breathe properly and I've got something strapped around my stomach."
He claimed that instead of offering help, the police promptly arrested him.