Three Lao Rights Activists Serving Long Prison Terms Must be Released: UN Special Rapporteur

Three Lao Rights Activists Serving Long Prison Terms Must be Released: UN Special Rapporteur Jailed Lao human rights defenders Lod Thammavong, Somphone Phimmasone, and Soukane Chaitad are shown, left to right, in undated photos.
Photos provided by citizen journalist

Three Lao workers serving long prison terms for criticizing their government on Facebook while working in Thailand were never allowed contact with lawyers, and should be immediately released, a U.N. human rights expert says.

Somphone Phimmasone, his girlfriend Lod Thammavong, and Soukane Chaithad disappeared in March 2016 after returning to Laos to renew their passports, and were later shown on television making what appeared to be forced confessions for what they called “the mistake” of protesting their country’s policies.

Charged with criticizing the Lao government online while working abroad and for taking part in a protest outside the Lao embassy in Thailand, the three were handed prison terms described by rights groups as harsh at a secret trial in April 2017.

Somphone was sentenced to a 20-year term and was fined 210 million kip (U.S. $26,000), while Soukane was sentenced to 16 years and was fined 106 million kip (U.S. $13,000), the source said.

Lod was handed a 12-year sentence and was fined 110 million kip (U.S. $14,000).

Somphone, Lod, and Soukane had been engaged in “legitimate human rights work” at the time of their arrest five years ago, Mary Lawlor—the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders—said in an April 12 statement, calling for their immediate release.

“The misuse of national security laws to convict human rights defenders who are critical of the Government generates fear amongst all human rights defenders in the country and has an adverse effect on their ability to carry out legitimate human rights work,” Lawlor said.

At no time, either in pre-trial detention or during their trial or since, were the three protesters allowed legal representation, Mary Lawlor wrote. “The Government must guarantee a safe, secure and enabling environment for all human rights defenders.”

'Specifically protected'

Responding by email to a question from RFA, Orsolya Toth—a human rights officer in the Special Procedures Branch of the Geneva-based Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights—said the activities for which the three human rights defenders were jailed “are not only not forbidden under international human rights law, but are specifically protected.”

“These reasons alone would be enough to call for their release, but their rights to a free and fair trial have also been violated,” Toth wrote, adding that it is not too late even now to allow them contact with an attorney.

“In ideal circumstances, prompt and unhindered access to an independent lawyer of their choice helps detainees serving a sentence to understand their rights and challenge aspects of their conditions and treatment in detention.”

“In the cases under question, access to lawyers might also provide opportunities to appeal the sentences,” Toth said.

“The outrageous and unacceptable criminal sentences against these three peaceful dissidents should be quashed,” added Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director for Human Rights Watch, in an April 14 statement, calling for their immediate and unconditional release.

“Once again, Vientiane is showing what a dictatorial government it is, with an unaccountable leadership that regularly runs roughshod over the human rights of the Lao people, both in the country and abroad,” Robertson said, calling the U.N. Special Rapporteur’s April 12 statement “an indictment of the lack of basic fair trial protections in the Lao legal system.”

No government statistics or reliable estimates exist regarding the number of political prisoners held by Laos in the country’s prisons, the U.S. State Department said in an annual human rights report released this year.

In June 2019, nine residents of Sekong province handed prison terms of from two to six years for their protest two years before of a government decision to give villagers’ farmland to a Vietnamese company for use as a rubber plantation.

And in August 2019, Od Sayavong, a Lao democracy activist living in Thailand, vanished after criticizing the Lao government and applying for asylum in a third country, with the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders saying the activist had likely “been disappeared.”

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Richard Finney.


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