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WASHINGTON-Advocates for 17 Lao nationals who raided a Lao customs and immigration office near the Thai border two years ago are accusing the Lao government of falsifying evidence against them in its extradition request, RFA's Lao service reports. "These robbery charges have been fabricated by the Lao government, in an attempt to get them [the raiders] extradited," said a close relative of one of the raiders, who asked not to be named. Official documents obtained by RFA appear to substantiate the charge. In court papers filed in Bangkok, the Lao government contends that the raiders left behind two bags containing about U.S. $40,000 at the border checkpoint they raided on July 3, 2002. That would support the Lao government's view that the raiders were bandits who should be returned to Laos for trial as common criminals, rather than political dissidents whom Thailand cannot by law send back to Laos. Under the 1929 Thai Royal Ordinance on Extradition, Thailand cannot extradite any person for trial on charges of a political nature. But confidential minutes of a July 15, 2000 meeting between high-ranking Thai and Lao border officials on the raid, obtained by RFA, makes no mention of any money among evidence found at the scene, suggesting that the raiders' motives were political. 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 were convicted in Oubol provincial court of illegally entering Thailand, and all have completed their sentences. They remain in custody in a Bangkok jail, however, pending a decision on whether to extradite them to Laos. "Why would they bother to hoist the Royalist flag, which stands for freedom and democracy, if they were just common criminals?" asked the relative. In a petition submitted this week to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the 17 men argued that, if they were returned to Laos, they would face "cruel treatment � to intimidate people who would try to fight the regime, to introduce freedom and democracy." Laos is an extremely poor country of about 5.2 million people, most of whom work in subsistence agriculture. In its 2001 report on human rights around the world, the U.S. State Department cited numerous serious human rights problems in Laos. Prisoners in Laos, it said, "are abused and tortured, and prison conditions generally are extremely harsh and life-threatening." Despite a legal guarantee of open trials in which defendants may have legal assistance, most can't afford lawyers and defendants are often barred from testifying on their own behalf. Radio Free Asia (RFA) broadcasts news, information, and cultural programming to Asian listeners who lack regular access to full and balanced reporting in their domestic media. Through its broadcasts and call-in programs, RFA aims to fill a critical gap in the lives of people across Asia--giving them a voice as well as a means of connecting with the world and with one another. Created by Congress in 1994 and incorporated in 1996, RFA currently broadcasts in Burmese, Cantonese, Khmer, Korean, Lao, Mandarin, the Wu dialect, Vietnamese, Tibetan (Uke, Amdo, and Kham), and Uyghur. It adheres to the highest standards of journalism and aims to exemplify accuracy, balance, and fairness in its editorial content.


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