UPDATED at 3:56 P.M. EST on 01-10-2015
A court in Laos has sentenced a Polish activist to nearly five years in prison after he posted criticism of the Lao government online, according to state media, drawing criticism from a diplomatic official who said the defendant was never given access to an attorney.
Bounthanh Thammavong—a 52-year-old Polish citizen of Lao heritage—was arrested in June and charged with “disseminating propaganda against the government with the intention of undermining the state” under Article 65 of the penal code after police found evidence connecting him to the Facebook posting during a search of his home in the capital Vientiane.
On Sept. 18, the Vientiane Supreme Court found Bounthanh guilty and sentenced him to four years and nine months in jail, according to a report by the Ministry of Public Security, which was televised over the weekend. He had faced a maximum of five years in prison and a fine of between 500,000 and 10 million kip (U.S. $60 and $1,225) if convicted.
“Based on the investigation and evidence, Bounthanh has been found guilty … of campaigning and carrying out activities against the regime of the Lao PDR,” the report quoted Colonel Thonglek Mangnormek, deputy director general of the Ministry of Public Security Police Department, as saying.
“[He has] also criticized the guidelines and policies of the party and government,” Thonglek said.
The report did not provide details of the message Bounthanh had posted.
A diplomatic official based in Laos who is familiar with the case called the court “one-sided” in favoring with the prosecution against Bounthanh, who was unable to meet with his lawyer during the trial.
“The prosecution and sentencing was unfair because he could not get access to legal assistance,” said the official, who spoke to RFA’s Lao Service on condition of anonymity.
Officials at the Polish Embassy in Thailand’s capital Bangkok refused to comment on Bounthanh’s sentencing when contacted by RFA over the weekend, other than to say they have sent representatives to visit with him once a month in prison.
A prominent democracy activist, Bounthanh was forced into exile from Laos and subsequently became a citizen of Poland, where he founded the Organization of Lao Students for Independence and Democracy.
He relocated to Laos in 2010 to run a business dealing with foreign investment after receiving assurances from Lao officials that he would not face arrest on his return, and visited his wife in Poland twice a year, prior to being detained.
Shirking rights recommendations
Vanida Thephsouvanh, president of the Paris-based Lao Movement for Human Rights, told RFA that Bounthanh’s sentencing was the latest example of how Vientiane had chosen to ignore recommendations from the United Nations during its latest Universal Periodic Review (UPR).
“At the last adoption of its UPR in June 2015, the Lao PDR rejected several important recommendations on human rights, including media and internet freedom,” she said.
“Bounthanh’s arrest is another proof that free expression has no place in the country.”
On June 23, Laos accepted only 116 of the 196 recommendations it received at its second UPR in January, with its U.N. representative Thongphane Savanhphet explaining that the remaining 80 “did not enjoy the full support” of the government.
Other recommendations the Lao government rejected included calls for the greater protection of human rights defenders, removal of obstacles to the work of civil society organizations and nongovernmental organizations, and new safeguards against forced disappearances.
“We can see that Lao citizens are claiming their space, but the government is responding with increasing repression,” Vanida said.
“Its repeated failure to implement basic international human rights standards clearly shows that the Lao PDR is absolutely not a credible candidate for the U.N. Human Rights Council ... [nor should it] host the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ ASEAN People’s Forum (ACSC/APF) in 2016,” she added.
In September last year, Lao Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong signed Decree No. 327 into law, prohibiting online criticism of the government and the ruling communist party, and setting out stiff penalties for netizens and Internet service providers who violate controls.
Under the decree, which took effect on Oct. 1, netizens face criminal charges for publishing “untrue information” about policies of the ruling Lao People's Revolutionary Party or the Lao government for the purpose of “undermining … the country.”
In May, authorities arrested a woman after photos she took of alleged police extortion were posted to Facebook, while in June, a second woman was detained for posting a document to the website which purportedly showed a decision by a local official granting a controversial land concession to a developer, prompting online criticism.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.