A Lao activist who was detained in late August for posting criticism of government corruption on Facebook has been released on bail after more than a month in jail, according to his recent comments on the social media platform.
After writing about graft and abuses in the impoverished one-party state, Sangkhane Phachanthavong, better known as “Thitsy,” was arrested at his home in southern Laos’s Champassak province on Aug. 26 and questioned in jail about links to “an anti-government group of overseas Laotians.”
“It’s like being dead and then reborn. Thank you for justice and my loved ones who were worried about my ideology and my love for this country,” Thitsy wrote on Facebook Wednesday, a day after he was bailed out.
The status update did not however reveal the amount of bail paid or any other terms of his release.
RFA’s Lao Service contacted the Investigative and Interrogative Unit of the Champassak Police Department to clarify, but an officer there said he did not know what the terms of release were and did not want to comment on the case.
An official from the provincial prosecutor’s office told RFA revealed slightly more, saying under condition of anonymity, “Mr. Sangkhane Phachanthavong has been authorized to be bailed out; but he still faces charges according to the law.”
Ruled by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party since 1975, Lao’s government brooks no opposition in any form and locks up citizens who post popular gripes and mild criticism on Facebook about corruption and mismanagement.
Before Thitsy’s arrest, a 30-year-old woman named Houayheuang Xayabouly was jailed for five years in November for defaming the country in complaints about the government response to floods in a Facebook Live video. And three Lao workers got jail terms of more than a decade in 2017 for criticizing the government on Facebook while working in Thailand.
The release of the activist, the first known case in which bail was granted to a political prisoner, came a day Laos restrictions on free speech were criticized was at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Cecilia Andersson of Britain used the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Lao’s rights record to highlight the country’s poor record on freedom of expression.
“The U.K. notes the Lao PDR statement that the constitution and related laws guarantee freedom of expression, however we remain concerned about restrictions on foreign news agencies and the use of intimidation against critics of the state. she said Monday.
A network of human rights defenders and democracy advocates for Laos expressed to RFA support for Thitsy.
“We, the Alliance for Democracy in Laos, along with the entire Lao community around the world, have been demanding justice for Mr. Sangkhane Phachantavong and are really happy having seen him freed,” said the group’s president Bounthone Chanthalavong-Wise.
“The release indicates that pressure on the Lao government from all of us on the global stage has been effective,” Chanthalavong-Wise said.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), meanwhile commended Thitsy’s release.
“He deserves to be released. I hope the Lao government understand that when people comment about something important on Facebook or in public, the government should listen and respect their rights,” said HRW’s deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson.
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.
According to a 2017 U.S. State Department report, the bail system in Laos is implemented arbitrarily.
Washington-based Freedom House classified Laos as “not free” with a global freedom score of 14 out of 100 in its 2020 Freedom of the World survey. The Southeast Asian country scored 2 out of 40 in political rights, and 12 out of 60 in civil liberties.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Eugene Whong.