Bangkok ignores court rulings

BANGKOK, July 6, 2004�Thai authorities have repatriated 16 Lao nationals to face trial at home for allegedly robbing a Lao border post in 2000, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reports. The move comes six months after a Thai appeal court threw out a Lao extradition request and ordered the men freed within 48 hours.

All 16 men were removed from the Immigration Detention Center in Bangkok on Sunday, July 4, and taken under guard to Oubol in southern Thailand, Thai and Lao officials told RFA�s Lao service. Saturday marked the fourth anniversary of the Vang Tao border post raid.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had deemed all 16 men "persons of concern," eligible to be considered for asylum and resettlement in a third country. On Dec. 30 last year, a Thai appeal court upheld a lower-court ruling that the men shouldn�t be extradited and ordered them freed within 48 hours. Why Thai authorities failed to release the men remains unclear.

Lao Foreign Ministry spokesman Yong Chanthalangsy told RFA the men would be sent to an undisclosed jail to await trial on charges of robbery. "These are not ordinary people�they are criminals. Where else would we send them?" he said.

Laos, under communist rule since 1975, has asked Thailand repeatedly to extradite the 16 Lao and 11 Thai nationals accused of taking part in the raid. A seventeenth Lao suspect died in Thai custody.

A group of some 60 men seized the Vang Tao border post on July 4, 2000. They held the post overnight�hoisting the old Lao national flag�until a deadly firefight with Lao troops drove them out and across the Thai border.

The raiders, according to local sources, demanded Lao political reform before they would free seven Lao hostages. After they were assured their demand was under consideration, they freed the hostages. Lao troops then opened fire, killing six raiders and driving the rest into the jungle.

A Thai trial court in Oubol Province and an appellate court in Bangkok rejected Vientiane�s extradition requests on grounds that the raid preceded any relevant treaty between the two governments and that eyewitness accounts presented by Laos were insufficiently compelling to implicate the Lao suspects.

But the men remained in Thai custody for illegal entry.

Bangkok-based political analyst Sunai Phasouk rejected the decision to extradite the men. "Of course Thailand wants to improve its relations with Laos� but morally this is wrong. These people might not get a fair and transparent trial in Laos," he said. "Nobody is ever admitted to witness a trial like this."

According to the most recent State Department report on human rights around the world, most Lao trials in 2003 were "little more than pro forma examinations of the accused, with a verdict having already been reached. Most criminal trials reportedly ended in convictions. Defendants sometimes were not permitted to testify on their own behalf. Trials for alleged violations of some criminal laws relating to national security and trials that involved state secrets, children under the age of 16, or certain types of family law were closed."

"In some instances, police administratively overruled court decisions, at times detaining a defendant exonerated by the court, in violation of the law," the State Department report said. And while the Lao Constitution and Penal Code prohibit torture, "members of the security forces subjected prisoners to torture and other abuses."

"Credible sources reported that detainees sometimes were subjected to beatings, long-term solitary confinement in completely darkened rooms, and burning with cigarettes. In some cases, detainees were held in leg chains or wooden stocks. During the year, several persons arrested for religious activity or suspected insurgent activity were held in wooden stocks or shackles for part of their confinement."

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