Exiled dissidents and human rights groups called Tuesday for international pressure on the Lao government to release all political prisoners, especially four student leaders who have been languishing in jail for the last 12 years.
The four leaders of the Lao Students Movement for Democracy were sentenced to 20 years in prison after they held peaceful protests on October 26, 1999 calling for political reforms, respect for human rights, and an end to corruption.
"It has been 12 years since our colleagues were arrested. We are very concerned for their health, welfare, and personal safety," said Nouamkham Khamphylavong, the movement's president, now living in exile in Seattle.
She said one of them, Thongpaseuth Keuakoun, is believed to be in poor health.
All four, including Seng-Aloun Phengphanh, Bouavanh Chanmanivong, and Kèochay, remain "in cruel, inhumane, or degrading conditions of detention."
Khamphouvieng Sisa-Ath, another of the student leaders jailed with the four, had died in prison, the students group said, citing "punishment by camp guards" as the reason.
"Their morale is low," Nouamkham told RFA of the jailed leaders, saying reports of their latest condition was based on feedback received from sources in Laos. "They don't know what is going to happen to them."
"We hope the government will realize that they are also the people of Laos. They don't want to harm the country."
The students group, also known as the Movement of October 26, 1999, called on the the United States, International Red Cross Committee, the United Nations, and other international organizations to pressure the Lao government to free them.
"We are hopeful that [the international community] will be willing to forward our concerns as well as those of the Lao communities around the world to the President of Laos, Choummaly Sayasone, and Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong," said Nouamkham, who was among six student leaders who participated in the protests but escaped the crackdown and sought exile in the United States.
Communist-ruled Laos remains one of Asia's most secretive and tightly controlled countries.
The Communist Party is the only party allowed to contest parliamentary elections, although independent candidates are permitted to run in the five-yearly poll, which generates little excitement among the estimated 6.4 million population, most of whom see the election as a mere formality.
Nouamkham said that the students movement still continues to conduct its activities in Laos among its "underground" supporters, saying the struggle for freedom, justice, and human rights will continue.
"Over the last 12 years, there has been some improvement in conditions in Laos, but the people are thirsting for freedom and democracy."
Eyes on Laos
Other international human rights groups also seek the immediate release of the four and all other political prisoners.
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint program of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT), and the Lao Movement for Human Rights (MLDH) expressed their "deep concern" over the continued arbitrary detention of the four.
"Through instrumentation of the law on ’national security,’ the Laotian Government punishes dissidents in a manner that should not be applied to any human being, even criminals, thereby disregarding human rights with complete impunity," it said in a statement.
It also called on the Laotian authorities to order an impartial investigation into Khamphouvieng Sisa-At’s death in custody.
Reported by Viengsay Luangkhot and Maysoly Lychongsu for RFA's Lao service. Translated by Viengsay Luangkhot. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.