Lao couple sentenced to 15 years in prison for human trafficking

The husband and wife hired the young women as waitresses before trying to force them into prostitution.
By RFA Lao
2022.08.26
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Police raid a restaurant suspected of providing sex services to customers in Vientiane, capital of Laos, January 2022.
Photo courtesy of a police officer

A Lao couple who hired young women to work as waitresses and later tried to coerce them into having sex with customers have been sentenced to 15 years in prison and fined 100 million kip ($6,500) each, authorities said, in a rare case in which traffickers in the country have faced significant punishment for their crimes. 

Police in Xieng Khouang province arrested Boun, 53, and his wife, Douangchanh, 44, of Na Oh village in Pek district after they confessed to the crime, the provincial Public Security Department announced on Thursday.

The couple told authorities that two members of a human trafficking gang in Phonxay district, Luang Prabang province, told them on Aug. 13 that four young women in two villages in the district were looking for jobs. Douangchanh agreed to hire the girls, cover their travel expenses, and pay each 1 million kip (U.S. $65) a month. Phonxay is one of the poorest districts in the province. 

Several days later, the gang members brought the young women to Xieng Khouang province and handed them over to the couple. At first, they worked as waitresses, but later the couple tried to coerce them into working as prostitutes. The four young women then escaped, however.

“The couple was sentenced in July to 15 years in prison and fined 100 million kip each,” an employee at the Xieng Khouang People’s Court, where the pair was sentenced, told RFA on Thursday. 

“Right now, they’re in jail,” he said. “The couple lured the underage girls into sex trade. The act is illegal and dangerous to our community and our culture.”

Human trafficking is a serious problem in small, impoverished Laos, where young women are often “recruited” by middlemen or traffickers who promise good-paying jobs in other areas of the country. But employers often refuse to pay the women their agreed-to salaries, abuse them physically, or force them to become sex workers. 

The young women needed jobs to make some money after their high school was closed during the coronavirus pandemic lockdown, and they couldn’t attend classes, said an official from the Public Security Department of Xieng Khouang province.

The four students told authorities that when they escaped from the couple, they went to their friends, who called the police, he said. 

During an interrogation, they said they had worked as waitresses selling noodle soups and beer at first, but then they were pressured to have sex with customers, though they refused to do so, the official said.

“Boun and Douangchanh threatened them, saying that each would have to repay the 700,000 kip (U.S. $45) for their travel expenses that the couple paid to the gang members,” he said.

“The girls didn’t have money, so they escaped to their friends, then their friends called the police,” he said.

The two gang members are in the process of being sentenced, he added.

A member of the anti-human trafficking unit of Phonxay district in Luang Prabang province told RFA that authorities regularly visit all villages there to get information from the village chiefs about residents who leave to go to work elsewhere, either within the country or abroad.

“In the case of these four girls, they were too young and unaware of the tricks of the human traffickers,” he said. “They just wanted to have a job from which they could earn some money for themselves and for their parents.”

Rising number of trafficking cases

Authorities handed over the four young women to their parents after questioning, said a member of the district’s Women’s Union. 

“In the last few years, there have been a lot of human trafficking cases like this one in this district,” she told RFA. “This year, both the district and provincial authorities, including the Women’s Union, are working together campaigning against human trafficking and for advancement of women, girls and children.”

Representatives from the groups travel to each village, disseminating information about the country’s anti-human trafficking law and provide advice and assistance to victims, she said.

Human traffickers are rarely jailed in Laos. About five years ago, RFA reported that a middle-aged woman in Borikhamxay province had been charged with trafficking two young Lao women to Thailand. She received a five-year sentence. 

The woman, who had enough money to pay a good lawyer to defend her and had many personal connections with powerful people in the province, appealed her conviction and ended up serving only one year in jail and paying a fine of 30 million kip (U.S. $1,950).

The U.S. State Department’s 2022 Trafficking in Persons report characterizes Lao as a Tier 2 country because the government does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so.  

Article 215 of the country’s Penal Code criminalizes sex and labor trafficking and prescribes penalties of five to 15 years’ imprisonment and a fine of 10 million-100 million Lao kip (U.S. $650-$6,500). If the crime involves a child victim, the fine range is 100 million-500 million kip (U.S. $32,400), the report noted. 

“These penalties were sufficiently stringent and, with regard to sex trafficking, commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape,” the report said.

It also noted that the closure of many courts and judicial offices during various national COVID-19 pandemic-related lockdowns constrained the government’s ability to enforce its anti-trafficking laws in 2021. 

Despite this, the Lao Anti-Trafficking Department under the Ministry of Public Security investigated 39 potential cases of trafficking involving 77 suspected perpetrators from January to December 2021, compared with 21 cases involving 43 perpetrators in 2020, according to the report.

Of the 39 cases, police completed their investigations and referred 25 cases involving an unspecified number of suspected traffickers to the Office of the Supreme People’s Prosecutor, compared to 10 cases involving 20 suspected traffickers in 2020, it said.

Translated by Max Avary for RFA Lao. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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