Man fleeing communist party caught up in Ballan growhouse

File photo.
File photo.

A Vietnamese man who was coerced to participate in a sophisticated Ballan grow house was fleeing the communist party, a court has been told.

Hung Phan, an active member of the communist party in Vietnam, feared for his life after threats were made to him in an apparent bribery.

The 34-year-old fled to Australia and was living here illegally when he was arrested at an Old Melbourne Road property on July 28, 2017.

Crown prosecutor Pat Bourke told the County Court at Ballarat on Wednesday police saw Phan running down the side of the house from the backyard.

He said during a search of the house, police found five rooms converted into grow rooms, where 237 cannabis plants at various growth stages were growing hydroponically under high wattage lights.

Mr Bourke said the cannabis plants, which were seized by police, weighed 108.93 kilograms.

Police did not interview Phan, but he told his lawyer he had only been to the house on the day of his arrest to water the plants. 

Mr Bourke said Phan’s co-accused, who drove him to the property without knowledge of the cannabis plants, pleaded guilty in the magistrates court to possessing cannabis.

He received five months’ jail but was resentenced to 144 days’ jail on appeal.

Phan pleaded guilty at an early stage in the magistrates court to cultivating cannabis in a commercial quantity, which carries a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison.

Defence barrister Adrian Paull told the court there was no evidence his client was involved in setting up the grow house or had profited from it.

He said he told defence he watered the plants on the day of his arrest and that was the basis of his guilty plea.

“There is no other evidence he was there any other time. He got a telephone call and was driven there by the co-accused,” Mr Paull said.

The court was told Phan was an educated person, holding a bachelor degree in economic law and certificates in radio and television broadcasting. 

Mr Paull said Phan had been an active member of the communist party in Vietnam since 2009 and was advised by his immediate superior if he were to obtain a promotion he had to pay $18,000.

His superior was concerned Phan might make that attempted bribery known and threats were made to him. Phan tried to revoke his communist party membership but was unsuccessful.

He ultimately left Vietnam and arrived in Australia, where some family members were living. But he did not contact his family to tell them he was living here for two years until his arrest in Ballan.

“He was concerned for his safety and his life,” Mr Paull said.

He said during the two-year period, Phan worked in a Chinese restaurant in Melbourne and sang at a club.

It was at this club he met and became friends with a patron – who learnt of Phan’s difficulties – and coerced him into his offending, Mr Paull said. 

In sentencing, Judge Liz Gaynor described Phan’s offending as low level. She said he was to be given credit for assisting police in their investigation.

She sentenced Phan to 10 months’ jail. If he did not plead guilty he would have received two-and-a-half-years’ jail with a minimum of 18 months.

Phan has already served 222 days in pre-sentence detention.