Three Lao workers arrested last year for criticizing their government on Facebook while working in Thailand have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms, one of the workers’ relatives said Tuesday, drawing condemnation from rights groups and calls for their immediate release.
Somphone Phimmasone, 29, his girlfriend Lod Thammavong, 30, and Soukane Chaithad, 32, disappeared in March 2016 after returning to Laos to renew their passports, their family and friends told RFA’s Lao Service in earlier reports.
While working in Thailand, the three had strongly criticized the Lao government online, accusing it of human rights abuses, and they were later shown on Lao television making what appeared to be public confessions for what they called the mistake of protesting the country’s policies.
A relative of one of the workers, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity, said Tuesday that he had recently contacted a detention center official requesting permission to visit his family member and was told the three “were sentenced last month.”
The official told the relative that Lod Thammavong, Soukane Chaithad, and Somphone Phimmasone had been sentenced to 12 years, 18 years, and 20 years in prison, respectively.
He added that the three had been transferred to Xam Khe prison in the capital Vientiane—the country’s largest detention facility.
An official at the prison, who did not provide his name, denied that the three had been sentenced when contacted by RFA.
Staff members at the Lao People’s Court and the country’s Prison Department refused to answer questions about the detainees, while attempts by RFA to reach the Vientiane People’s Court went unanswered late on Tuesday.
However, the Paris-based Federation of International Human Rights (FIDH) said in a statement Tuesday it had confirmed through local rights activists that the three were convicted sometime in early April.
FIDH called the sentences “a shocking reminder of Vientiane’s intolerance for any form of peaceful dissent” and called on authorities to “immediately and unconditionally” release the three.
“By locking up dissidents for up to two decades, the Lao government has abandoned any pretense of compliance with the country’s international human rights obligations,” FIDH president Dimitris Christopoulos said.
“It’s time for the international community to drop the diplomatic niceties and condemn the Lao government’s latest attack on civil society in the strongest possible terms.”
‘Violation of rights’
Khamtanh Phouthonephakdy, a member of the Germany-based Alliance for Democracy in Laos, called the sentences harsh and unjust.
“To administer sentences normally associated with committing a political crime or an anti-government activity is a violation of their rights,” he said.
“They were sentenced behind closed doors, but the Lao people—and particularly their families—have the right to know what happened to them.”
In March, Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, had said that the arrest of the three was a signal that Laos “intends to treat them quite harshly, and teach a lesson to other Lao migrant workers overseas to do nothing to oppose the government.”
“The only hope that these three imprisoned activists have now is if the U.N. or bilateral foreign aid donors take up their cases and demand the authorities immediately release them,” Robertson said at the time.
In 2014, the Lao government issued a decree prohibiting online criticism of the government and the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP), setting out stiff penalties for netizens and internet service providers who violate government controls.
The decree also requires netizens to use their real names when setting up social media and other accounts online.
Reported and translated by RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.