Authorities in Laos have released a young woman who had been detained for more than two months after a photo she took was posted on Facebook, allegedly showing police officers extorting money from her brother during a stop for a traffic violation, according to a source that is close to her family.
Phout Mitane, a 26-year-old resident of Xayaburi province, had been facing charges of “slander” for the photos, but was freed last week after an investigation of her case proved her “innocent” of personally posting them to Facebook, said the source, who spoke to RFA’s Lao Service on condition of anonymity.
“Phout was released on Aug. 4 and fined 1 million kip (U.S. $125),” the source said.
“After the police investigated her, she was found to be innocent. Despite taking the photos, she did not post them on Facebook,” he said.
“Before her release, she signed a document to certify that she would not [attempt to slander the police] again.”
Phout, from Nabouam village in Xayaburi’s Phieng district, was taken into custody without an arrest warrant after local police officers searched her home on May 21.
She had taken photos of police allegedly extorting money from her brother as she sat in his truck on May 11 and sent them to a Facebook friend, who later posted them on the website, according to sources.
The posting prompted a storm of criticism from other Facebook users who slammed the officers for abuse of power and corruption.
Early last month, a high-ranking official from the ruling Communist Party’s central committee told RFA that Phout was facing charges of “slander” for “fabricat[ing] stories” to defame the authorities, and could serve up to 18 months of jail time if convicted.
Lieutenant Colonel Yom Douangdy, chief of the Xayaburi Provincial Police Headquarters, refused to comment on the reasons for Phout’s detention or release when contacted by RFA.
A legal official, who declined to provide his name, told RFA that Phout’s rights had been violated when police searched her residence and detained her without a warrant.
“It is the right of all Lao citizens to be protected from physical and emotional violation—searching a residence and detaining someone can only be done based on search and arrest warrants issued by a court or prosecutor,” he said.
“I think the policemen abused their power in detaining her and ignored the negative impact. It shows the police were so concerned about the incident that they were willing to detain her on groundless accusations.”
In June, RFA had contacted the Xayaburi police officer in charge of Phout’s case, but he declined to provide any information, saying only that “she would not have been arrested if she had not committed a crime.”
Social media targeted
Phout’s detention had been slammed by rights groups, including New York-based Human Rights Watch, which last month said her case showed that “the police are using broad restrictions on free expression to cover up their own crimes, which is extorting bribes from ordinary Lao people.”
Human Rights Watch said Phout’s detention also demonstrated that the government of Laos “is afraid of the Internet” and how it allows ordinary citizens to share information and raise concerns about the abuse of power.
Use of social media in Laos has surged in recent years, with an increasing number of people looking to the internet to find news and information they do not have access to in state-run media.
In September last year, Lao Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong signed Decree No. 327 into law, prohibiting online criticism of the government and the ruling communist party, and setting out stiff penalties for netizens and Internet service providers who violate controls.
Under the decree, which took effect on Oct. 1, netizens face criminal charges for publishing “untrue information” about policies of the ruling Lao People's Revolutionary Party or the Lao government for the purpose of “undermining … the country.”
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.