James Chor Hang Chow, a Canadian businessman who was wrongfully imprisoned for over two and a half years in Vietnam, passed away before reclaiming his confiscated property and successfully petitioning for compensation. But despite his death, his lawyers are still looking to the government to make things right.
After being cleared of his conviction, Chow spent nearly two decades petitioning various Vietnamese judicial bodies to restore his seized properties, including money Khanh Hoa authorities appropriated through the sale of his ship, the Duong Thuy 1.
Upon his release from prison, Chow found himself in limbo. He had little money and no family in Vietnam, but was unable to return to Canada as he was still embroiled in a legal battle to reclaim his property and protest for a payout.
The two decades he spent attempting to recuperate his losses was financed by several of his friends and acquaintances in Ho Chi Minh City.
Court documents highlight several times Chow was mistreated during legal proceedings. One such instance occurred in his case against Khanh Hoa Transport Service Co. (KHTS).
KHTS filed a lawsuit with the Vietnam International Arbitration Center against Chow in late 1991, during which arbitrators declared that Chow would be responsible for a US$213,000 payout to KHTS.
Unsatisfied with the judgment, Chow filed an appeal but unable to attend the hearing as he was charged with and arrested for “abuse of trust to appropriate Socialist property” in August 1992.
His company’s ship, the Duong Thuy 1, was subsequently transferred to KHTS while the Canadian awaited his hearing, despite the fact that no official verdict had been made.
The People’s Court of Ho Chi Minh City officially sentenced Chow to two years, six months, and five days in prison on February 18, 1995. As he had served the term in detention, he was released upon the ruling.
In light of this decision, KHTS promptly claimed full ownership of the Duong Thuy I, just four days before an appeal hearing for the case was meant to begin.
Though that appeal ended with Chow’s acquittal, it was just the beginning of a new journey for him, one that would have him spend the next two decades of his life unsuccessfully seeking the return of his lost property and would end in his death.
Chow’s first step was to file for the return of the Duong Thuy I, but his request was complicated by the fact that KHTS had been dissolved by Khanh Hoa’s provincial leaders in July 1996 and the cargo liner had been sold for VND595 million ($25,700).
In March 1997, Chow wrote a letter to the People’s Court of Ho Chi Minh City to request restoration of his properties, including $7,960 and the Duong Thuy I.
The request had then brought to Ho Chi Minh City’s Department of Civil Judgment Enforcement but was stalled in 1997 because of KHTS's disbandment.
Where’s the money?
According to the judgment enforcement agency, the People’s Committee of Khanh Hoa Province is responsible for Chow’s payout now that KHTS has been dissolved.
The Ho Chi Minh City Department of Civil Judgment Enforcement stated in an official dispatch on September 18, 1997 that the sale of Duong Thuy I by KHTS, though authorized by the People’s Committee of Khanh Hoa, was unlawful as an official judgment had not been made in the case.
This means the People’s Committee of Khanh Hoa is required to transfer the VND595 million made from the sale of the Duong Thuy I to Chow.
The committee, on the other hand, says that Chow’s unfulfilled payment to the now-defunct KHTS serves as grounds for withholding the money.
On May 14, 1998, the judgment enforcement agency leveraged a coercive judgment enforcement against the People’s Committee of Khanh Hoa by requiring VND595 million from the provincial budget be transferred to the agency.
Khanh Hoa’s State Treasury, nevertheless, refused to adhere to the decision and withheld the transfer.
To this date, there has been no further progress made in the restoration of Chow’s assets.
Suffering unjustly till death
Chow was kept in a state of limbo for over 20 years, completely unsure of whether or not he would ever be offered his payout from the Khanh Hoa People’s Committee, compensation for his wrongful imprisonment, or merely an apology.
After his conviction was quashed, Chow set his sights on reclaiming his seized properties, unaware of the compensation he deserved in accordance with Vietnamese law.
The first-instance judgment, a requisite document for the Canadian man to claim the compensation, was not provided to him in the trial.
In 2007, Chow was instructed by a pro bono lawyer to write a request soliciting the first-instance judgment from the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Court, which turned out to be successful.
He then filed an application to claim a VND27.4 billion ($1.18 million) payout for his unjust suffering, which comprises his mental suffering and material damage inflicted by the wrongful imprisonment, as well as its impact on his business, his loss of income and job, and other damages.
He never heard back from the court.
Shortly after, he fell ill and was unable to continue petitioning judicial agencies for his compensation. His worsening condition also obstructed his work with his lawyer to reclaim his assets and payout.
Chow’s long-time friend and business partner recently introduced him to lawyer Phan Trung Hoai, who wrote to the People’s Court asking for affirmation on the Canadian’s unjust sentence and the whereabouts of his payout. The court never responded.
In the end, Chow was unable to outlive their radio silence and he passed away on June 30, 2020 without receiving a dime of his due compensation.
In conversation with Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper, lawyer Phan Trung Hoai divulged that the court has yet to offer an official response to Chow’s payout request, leaving him unable to quantitate the damage inflicted.
Hoai said he is still waiting for information from the court before he makes his next moves.
“James had passed away, but his next of kin live in Canada and Hong Kong. Hence, the compensation process shall not be halted but rather continue in favor of his heirs," the lawyer said.
“Chow’s relatives are not able to come to Vietnam due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but after the inheritance procedure is completed, they will be able to authorize a lawyer to continue the process."
|Vietnamese lawyer Phan Trung Hoai, the pro bono lawyer representing Canadian man James Chow, is seen in a provided photo.|
A pro bono lawyer
“James was introduced to me after his discharge from prison. He was seeking legal assistance to reclaim his seized properties. After reading the appeal judgment, I agreed to represent him,” Hoai recounted.
“I became the focal point of correspondence with the authority, keeping tabs on all responding documents throughout the years. I continued to do it even during a period when James and I lost contact."
Hoai and Chow met again after several years, during which time the Canadian man once again asked for help.
When Chow landed in the hospital, Hoai, alongside Long – Chow’s long-time friend – helped with the Canadian man’s hospital bills as well as the VND30 million ($1,300) fine for his expired visa before renewing it.
“James came to our country to do business but was entangled in the legal fiasco to the point of bankruptcy, so I helped him to the best of my ability,” Hoai said.
“Back when he was healthy, James sent me a message saying that he would reimburse me once he got his properties back. He repeatedly asked to involve me in a reward contract, but I saw that he was too anguished already, so I turned him down."
|Some of Canadian James Chow's hospital bills. Photo: H.D. / Tuoi Tre|