Police in southeastern Laos’ Sekong province have arrested 14 villagers in Thateng district since late July for their involvement in an 11-year-old land conflict, and have brutally assaulted three of them, a relative of the one of the detainees said.
The villagers were arrested with others on July 25 for cutting down rubber trees belonging to the Vietnamese rubber company Cong Ty Cao Su Nghi Lao-Viet (LVF).
The residents of Yeub village have been fighting for alternative land and additional compensation since the government granted their land — in what is believed to have been a 50-year concession — to LVF in 2006 for rubber cultivation.
The three who were beaten are named Suvanh, Bounleang, and Nak, a 15-year-old, the relative told RFA's Lao Service on Sept. 19.
“During the first day in jail, Suvanh was brutally beaten until his face bled,” he said. “Bounleang was beaten to unconsciousness with a gun by police. Nak was shocked to unconsciousness with an electric baton by police in the village’s schoolyard.”
Another detainee named Vikham became so depressed that he tried to commit suicide by hanging himself, but other detainees rescued him, he said.
Family members of the detainees who want to visit them must pay police 20,000 kip (U.S. $2.37), he said.
None of the villagers dare to discuss the land issue now because police have threatened to throw them in jail if they do, the source said.
RFA tried repeatedly to contact Sekong’s governor Khampheuay Boutdaving, Colonel Somxay Phounlamany, chief of the provincial police station, Somnith Silibounlieng, a provincial prosecutor, and other relevant officials for comment, but they refused to take the calls.
The 14 detainees have been split into two groups in jail, the source said.
The first group includes Vikham, Nounleang, Nounpoke, Nak, and Bountia who are detained in the KM 3 jail in the provincial capital also known as Sekong.
The second group consists of Suvanh, Bountean, Po, Nai, Vihanh, Somsawanh, Sonh, Bounsod, and a 15-year-old girl named Ny who are being held in a jail in Lamam district of the provincial capital.
“The police abused their power during the arrests,” said a Lao lawyer who declined to be named “The police don’t adhere to the rule of law, so they should be punished because they know how the law is implemented.”
“The police who are in charge of the investigation have abused their power by physically threatening and assaulting the villagers who are just suspects, which is considered a felony,” he said.
“In particular, they are only suspects,” the lawyers said. “They have not been found guilty and sentenced by a court,” the lawyer said.
A local police officer and resident of Yeub village told RFA in August that only 12 people had been arrested for chopping down trees on the disputed land which is being used by a Vietnamese rubber company. At the time, police had not publicly released the names of those detained.
The conflict over the land has been going on since 2006 when LVF “grabbed” 121 hectares (300 acres) from 55 families, though its concession from authorities legally allowed it to take only 42 hectares (104 acres), the villager who declined to be named told RFA in August.
He went on to say that in March 2017, the office of Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith issued a notice directing Sekong province authorities to address the land dispute problem and assigned the ministries of natural resources and the environment; agriculture and forestry; and public security to take the lead in resolving it.
The notice, however, did not specify the timing.
It is not the first time that Yeub villagers have been arrested in the ongoing land dispute. Eight residents were arrested by provincial authorities for submitting a petition against LVF to the prime minister’s office in May 2012, because the provincial governor was not happy with their actions.
Later that month, the prime minister’s office ordered Sekong’s governor to rectify the situation, and authorities responded by arresting the villagers in June and July of that year, the villager said.
Suvanh, who was arrested on July 26 of that year, was physically assaulted, given only eight meals during the 15 days he spent in jail, and was handcuffed, forcing him to urinate and defecate in place, he said.
Authorities detained the others for almost two weeks, then released them, he said.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.