Some of five Christians jailed in Laos for “illegally practicing medicine” after they prayed for a dying woman’s recovery may soon be released, according to an official responsible for religious affairs in the country’s Savannakhet province.
In a move that drew sharp criticism from human rights groups, a provincial court handed down nine-month sentences to the Christians earlier this month for violating Lao laws governing medical practice by praying for the recovery of a dying woman.
“It is illegal [that] the court sentenced them to jail for practicing medicine practice without licenses,” the official, who declined to be named, told RFA’s Laos Service. “The provincial authorities will release them after they serve their time.”
Although the official said he believed some of the sentences would be reduced in the future, he provided no further details.
The Christians were arrested last June after they prayed for the recovery of a woman named Chansee—a religious convert from Buddhism to Christianity—who was dying of a long-term illness.
After she died, a member of her family requested that police arrest the Christians because that person believed they had caused the woman’s death, the official said.
Some authorities, an attorney and district administration official had tried to help the Christians because they believed that they had no intention of causing the woman’s death, he said.
But because the case was sent to the provincial level, they could do nothing more, he said.
Sends the wrong message
International human rights groups have criticized the detentions.
Sirkoon Prasertsee, director of U.S.-based Human Rights Watcher for Laos Religious Freedom (HRWLRF), told ucanews.com, a Catholic news service in Asia, that the court ruling sent a message to Christians in Laos that government authorities can arrest and criminalize them for gathering to pray for those who are ill.
“The court ruling is threatening the very core of the Christian religion, where prayer for the sick and suffering is now officially ruled as a criminal offense,” Sirkoon Prasertee was quoted as saying.
Phil Robertson, deputy director for Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, told ucanews.com that the court’s decision was an example of the government’s lack of commitment to protect the rights of religious minorities.
“Laos’ record on religious freedom leaves a lot to be desired, especially when it comes to the sorts of harassment and repression inflicted by authorities on any congregation or group that has not received official permission to operate,” he was quoted as saying.
Robertson pointed out that the country’s Decree on Religious Practice outlaws any religious practice that the authorities deem could create “social division” or “chaos,” but fails to define those terms, resulting in impunity for local officials who target religious minority groups.
“If this group of five is charged and convicted for doing nothing more than praying at a dying woman’s side, then this could mark a new nadir for religious freedom in the country—so let’s hope that common sense will prevail and Laos drops the case immediately,” Robertson was quoted as saying.
The five defendants were listed in court documents as farmers but identified as pastors or Christian leaders by the HRWLRF, according to the ucanews.com.
They were not allowed representation by a defense attorney, and the court made no effort to determine the cause of Chansee’s death, Prasertsee told the news service.
In its decision, the court said it had determined that the “deeds performed by the defendants constituted indeed a criminal act of working as illegal doctors,” the news report said.
Prasertsee also told ucanews.com that the five Christians, who are jailed in Savannakhet provincial prison, would likely appeal their verdict but could face problems again with finding legal representation.
Christians make up about 1.5 percent of the population in predominantly Buddhist Laos.
Reported and translated by RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.