Authorities in Laos have formally charged a young woman who has been detained since May after a photo she took was posted on Facebook, allegedly showing police officers extorting money from her brother during a stop for a traffic violation, according to an official source.
Phout Mitane, a 26-year-old resident of Xayaburi province, will be charged with “slander” and faces up to 18 months of jail time if convicted, a high-ranking official from the ruling Communist Party’s central committee told RFA’s Lao Service, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Those who fabricate stories to slander the authorities are considered criminal offenders who must undergo reeducation and may be jailed for six to 18 months,” the official said.
The official declined to respond to recent criticism from international human rights groups who have pressured Lao authorities to release Phout, saying he had not read statements outlining their concerns with her case.
The fate of the young woman depends on a decision by the provincial court at the end of her ongoing trial, he said.
Phout, from Nabouam village in Xayaburi’s Phieng district, was taken into custody without an arrest warrant by local police officers on May 21.
She had taken a photo of police allegedly extorting money from her brother as she sat in his truck on May 11, and sent them to a Facebook friend who later posted them on the website, prompting a storm of criticism from other users who criticized the officers for abuse of power and corruption.
It was unclear if Phout has appeared in court, or how her case was unfolding, as the local prosecutor has withheld information about the trial and she has not had access to a lawyer, according to a source close to her family.
However, the source told RFA that Phout’s family had been contacted by police about posting bail for her.
“One of the Xayaburi provincial policemen contacted her family to post bail for her at a cost of 50 million kip (U.S. $6,175), but her family refused,” said the source, who also declined to provide the names of the officers.
Last month, RFA spoke with the Xayaburi police officer in charge of Phout’s case, but he declined to provide any information, saying only that “she would not have been arrested if she had not committed a crime.”
Phout’s detention has been slammed by rights groups, including New York-based Human Rights Watch, which recently called her case “shocking” and demanded her immediate release.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of the group’s Asia Division, told RFA that “nothing [she] did should have been considered a crime,” expressing shock that “the police are using broad restrictions on free expression to cover up their own crimes, which is extorting bribes from ordinary Lao people.”
“The fact that the government is defending such behavior shows how rights repressing and morally bankrupt the Lao government has become,” he said.
“It's no wonder then that the Lao government uses threats of imprisonment to force the people to remain silent—because if they were able to speak without retaliation, I expect there would be a wave of criticism that would be intense and sustained about the fundamental failures of the Lao government to provide for their people and protect their rights.”
Robertson said the government “is afraid of the Internet” and how it allows ordinary citizens to share information and raise concerns about the abuse of power.
“It's time for international donors to Laos to say enough is enough, and demand an end to the systematic abuses of human rights in Laos, starting with calling for an end to persecution of [Phout] and other people like her,” he said.
Social media targeted
Use of social media in Laos has surged in recent years, with an increasing number of people looking to the internet to find news and information they do not have access to in state-run media.
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.”
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.