Updated at 7 p.m. EST on 2014-10-29.
Human rights groups have pressed the Lao government to release 12 pro-democracy leaders from jail—some of them have been held for 15 years—with at least one group calling for an aggressive campaign for their freedom.
The groups are deeply concerned about the condition of three student leaders detained during a democracy protest on Oct. 26, 1999 and nine others linked to the protest and taken into custody 10 years later.
They want the Lao communist government to free the 12 if it wants to proceed with its plan to vie for a seat in the U.N. Human Rights Council for the 2016-2017 term.
The government should also be compelled to disclose the whereabouts and condition of the 12 ahead of a periodic review of Laos’s rights record by the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, in January, the rights groups said.
“We want the Lao government to release those arrested before attending this event to show to the United Nations and the world that Laos respects human rights and all conventions and treaties about human rights to which it has agreed and signed with the U.N.,” Vanida Thepsouvanh, president of the Paris-based Lao Movement for Human Rights, told RFA’s Lao Service.
Five Lao student leaders were arrested in 1999 after attempting to organize a peaceful protest in the capital Vientiane, demanding social justice, respect of basic citizens’ rights and democratic reforms.
One of them, Khamphouvieng Sisa, died in prison in 2001 after alleged torture and another—Keochay—was freed in 2002, but the fate of the other three—Thongpaseuth Keuakoun, Sengaloun Phengphanh and Bouvanh Chanmanivong —has been unclear.
Authorities arrested and imprisoned nine others, whose surnames are Kingkeo, Somchit, Soubin, Souane, Sinprasong, Nou, Somkhit, Khamsone and Souringa, in early November 2009, as they were traveling to Vientiane to seek social justice and respect of basic rights.
Most were connected with the 1999 student protests.
They were among more than 300 people detained although the rest were quickly released, according to the Seattle-based Lao Students Movement for Democracy.
It is not known in which prison the 12 are being held or if they are still alive, the Lao Movement for Human Rights said in a statement on Sunday.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of New York-based Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, said a fresh campaign has to be launched to push for their release.
“Well, I think there is going to have to be a rejuvenated campaign for their release,” he told RFA. “There has to be pressure brought on the Lao government to at least allow for the relatives of these people to visit them.”
He said there has to be basic assurances provided that they would be taken care of and would not have their rights further abused.
“And really that starts with getting them out of jail now. Laos…should let them go.”
Bounthone Chanthalavong-Wiser, President of the Germany-based Alliance for Democracy in Laos, said the 12 should be freed as they did nothing wrong.
“We ask the Lao government to immediately release them without conditions. We condemn this serious violation [of human rights] by the Lao authorities,” Bounthone said.
“The October 26 student movement in Laos just wanted to see a change toward democracy.”
The Lao Movement for Human Rights said the release of the 12 “would be an important first step in favor of freedom of expression and peaceful protest and would show the commitment” of the government “in its will to implement obligations” under human rights international instruments that the country has ratified.
During Laos's first universal periodic review of its rights record in 2010, it ignored recommendations to release the student leaders and the others and to create an independent national commission on human rights that conformed with the Paris Principles, the movement said.
Adopted by the U.N. Human Rights Commission in 1991, the principles relate to the status and functioning of institutions to promote and protect human rights.
The movement said that based on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Laos ratified in September 2009, and other international commitments under the UN Declaration of 1998 on Human Rights Defenders, the 12 should be freed, the statement said.
It urged Lao to end arbitrary arrests and detentions by being transparent about the state of its prisons and detention camps, number of detainees and reasons for their imprisonment.
The group also has urged the international community to monitor such human rights violations in Laos.
Donor states should ensure that their trade agreements with the country as well as their investments and development assistance are consistent with human rights standards and contain safeguards to prevent and address human rights abuses, the statement said.
Reported by Champathong for RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Somnet Inthapannha. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.
Correction: An earlier version erroneously stated that 13 pro-democracy leaders were in jail.