A Polish citizen of Lao heritage jailed in Laos for criticizing the government online will not be among hundreds of prisoners granted pardons by the end of the year because he “does not meet the proper criteria,” according to a public security official.
Lao authorities arrested Bounthanh Thammavong, a 52-year-old democracy activist, in June and sentenced him three months later to nearly five years in prison for “disseminating propaganda against the government with the intention of undermining the state” in a Facebook posting.
Bounthanh’s wife, Barbara Paklak-Thammavong, has been trying to get him transferred from a Lao detention center to a prison in Poland, where his family lives, and had hoped he would be freed as part of a tradition of annual pardons announced by the government at year-end. The couple has two daughters, aged 10 and 14.
Earlier this week, the Ministry of Public Security announced that the Lao government had granted pardons to some 900 prisoners, releasing 170 people and granting reductions in sentences of between six months to a year to more than 700 others. Prisoners serving time for murder or drug trafficking were not eligible, the ministry said.
But an official with the ministry’s Prison Department recently told RFA’s Lao Service that Bounthanh was not among those receiving amnesty.
“He has not been given a pardon yet because he was recently jailed, while the list of prisoners eligible for pardon was considered and endorsed at the beginning of the year,” said the official, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity.
“Normally, prisoners who receive pardons will have already served some portion of their sentence, which must be less than 20 years … That is why Bounthanh does not meet the proper criteria to receive a pardon this year.”
The official did not specify how much of their sentence a prisoner must have served before they can receive a pardon, saying only that the head of each detention center is responsible for determining eligibility. Recommendations must receive final approval from Lao President Choummaly Sayasone.
Bouthanh’s relatives had visited him once since his arrest, at which time authorities informed them of their right to request an appeal of his sentence “but they did not say anything,” the official said.
Paklak-Thammavong told RFA that she was “concerned” by the decision not to pardon her husband and urged the Polish government to increase pressure on Laos for his release.
“I am afraid that my husband will be in the jail until the end of his life,” she said.
“I pray and have asked the Polish authorities to make a deal with the Lao government to release my husband.”
Last month, Paklak-Thammavong said the Polish ambassador to Laos had visited Bounthanh in prison, although he had difficulties in obtaining a permit to do so.
One of her husband’s sisters also obtained a permit to visit Bounthanh to take him food, medicine and other items, she said, although authorities have denied permission to other relatives to visit him.
“The ambassador assured me that Bounthanh’s case is a priority for the Polish government and European Union,” Paklak-Thammavong said at the time. “They will do everything to get him to Poland.”
In October, a Lao Foreign Ministry official told RFA that although Laos and Poland have not signed an extradition treaty, the two governments could still agree to a prisoner transfer. But in Bounthanh’s case, he would have to serve one year of his sentence in Laos first before he could be exchanged, he added.
Bounthanh had been 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.
More than 8,000 people are incarcerated in Laos, according to the Ministry of Public Security, including some 200 foreigners.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.