BANGKOK�The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has declared 16 Lao nationals who raided a Lao customs and immigration office along the Thai border in July 2000 �people of concern,� RFA reports.

�The next step is for the Bangkok appeals court to notify the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs about the outcome of the [Dec. 30] appeal trial,� Prutisith Boonthon, one of the lawyers, told RFA�s Lao service.

On Dec. 30, a Bangkok appeals court upheld the decision not to extradite the 16 Lao nationals back to Laos. The appeal, which was filed by the Lao government in June of this year, requested the extradition of the Lao nationals, who were arrested by Thai authorities in 2000 for illegally entering Thailand. However, because Thai law prevents its courts from trying an extradition case in which the defendants were politically motivated, the Bangkok court ruled it could not extradite the raiders.

After the Dec. 30 verdict was declared, the UNHCR had 48 hours to assist the 16 Lao nationals. However, because Dec. 31 and Jan. 1 are Thai national holidays celebrating the new calendar year, the UNHCR could only declare them �people of concern,� which protects them from being deported back to Laos.

Once the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs is contacted by the Bangkok Appeals Court, it will in turn contact its counterpart in Laos before it can authorize the UNHCR to contact the 16 Lao nationals. Then the Thai government will allow the UNHCR to interview the Lao nationals to assess their eligibility for refugee status and for resettlement to a third country.

All 16 Lao nationals are to be relocated to a U.N. camp in Bangkok, where they will remain while the UNHCR determines their status. Once they are officially turned over to the U.N. by the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the UNHCR will begin the process of interviewing the 16 Lao nationals and contacting third countries for resettlement�which can be a lengthy process.

On July 3, 2000, some 60 people raided and seized a Lao customs and immigration post located on the border between Thailand�s Ubon Ratchathani Province and Laos�s Champassak Province�hoisting a Lao Royalist flag before Lao forces struck back and recaptured the border post.

Six of the raiders died in the exchange of fire, some fled into the jungle, and 28�17 Lao nationals and 11 Thais�fled over the border into Thailand. All 17 Lao nationals were convicted in Oubol Provincial Court of illegally entering Thailand, and all have completed their sentences.

Following the completion of their sentences, the Lao government filed an extradition request for the 17 raiders, who remained in a Bangkok jail pending the outcome of the extradition trial. In June, the Bangkok Criminal Court referred the case back to the Oubol Provincial Court, which has jurisdiction over the location of the raid. That court ruled the 16 remaining Lao nationals (one died in jail of natural causes) had been politically motivated, so they could not be extradited. Tuesday�s decision by the Bangkok Appeals Court affirmed the original Oubol Provincial Court decision.

This news comes on the heels of concern that the UNHCR might not act within the 48-hour period following the appeals court verdict. According to Thai regulations, the UNHCR cannot interview those whose trials are pending as it may influence the outcome of their case. ####


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