International human rights organization Frontline Defenders is calling for the release of a land rights activist who was recently arrested and detained in Laos. On June 18th, human rights defender Mr. Souvanh from Yup village, Thateng District, Sekong Province was arrested by the military for urging the authorities to seek a solution to a land dispute in his community.
Since his arrest, he has been detained at a provincial military jail and has been given one meal per day. He has not been allowed to meet his relatives and lawyer. A local contact fears that Souvanh could be badly treated in jail. Souvanh is a farmer who has been active in advocating for land rights in his community.
The arrest of Souvanh came after a series of arrests of human rights defenders and land rights activists by Lao authorities. Seven human rights defenders from Ban Yup village in Sekong Province were reportedly arrested by Provincial Security Police on June 13th and 14th. They were detained at Thateng district police station and were released on June 26th. These villagers have been opposing the land concession given to Cong Ty Cao Su Nghi Lao-Viet (LVF) company. The company was granted a 50 year land concession in 2006 to plant rubber in Thateng and Daksing districts. At least four villagers have been affected by this concession.
The Ban Yup villagers’ dispute goes back to 2006, when the Lao government granted the Vietnamese company the concession.Villagers opposed the concession and turned to local authorities for help in demanding better compensation, but their appeals produced no results.
Before their arrest, in the absence of progress on a solution, Souvanh and the seven human rights defenders had met with local authorities to demand better compensation for the villagers affected by the concession. They had also submitted a petition to the National Assembly, the Lao Front for National Reconstruction, and the Prime Minister’s Office which responded by assigning provincial authorities to look into the dispute, although to this date, no action has been taken.
Local officials contacted by RFA initially said the villagers who were previously released had been detained for conducting themselves in a disorderly fashion, but later said the group had only been questioned about their grievances. Thateng District Chief Khamsone Konyer said after their release: “It was not an arrest; it was just an investigation and interrogation of the villagers because they lodged a complaint with the ministry. We just want to the reasons behind their grievances.”
One local source said officials were holding and interrogating the group in a bid to find out which members of the village were organizing others to call for protection of their land rights. Provincial Governor Khampheuay Bouttavong, however, denied any detentions had occurred and told RFA at the time: “It’s not true; it’s just slander…. We haven’t arrested anybody or detained anyone. This never happened.”
Front Line Defenders believes that the arrest and detention of Souvanh is directly related to his work in the defense of human rights, in particular his work in defending land rights. Front Line Defenders is seriously concerned for his physical and psychological integrity while in detention. They urge the authorities in Laos to immediately and unconditionally release Souvanh and ensure that the treatment of Souvanh, while in detention, adheres to all those conditions set out in the Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment, adopted by UN General Assembly.
The organization also asks the Lao government to carry out an immediate, thorough and impartial investigation into the arrest of Souvanh and take all necessary measures to guarantee the physical and psychological integrity and security of Souvanh and other human rights defenders from Yup village. Frontline also calls on the Lao authorities to guarantee in all circumstances that all human rights defenders in Laos are able to carry out their legitimate human rights activities without fear of reprisals and free of all restrictions.