Human Rights Foundation (HRF) is urging the Lao government to uphold the country’s obligations under international law and protect pro-democracy activists seeking refuge in Laos from the Thai government. Last week, Laos accepted Thailand’s request to capture and return Thai dissidents within Laos’ borders, including activists facing charges for expressing criticism of the government.
Some of these dissidents, such as Wutthipong Kotchathamkhun, face lèse-majesté charges if sent back to Thailand. Thailand’s junta-led regime is known for abusing lèse-majesté, a type of criminal defamation provision, to silence peaceful critics of the government. Thailand’s aggressive abuse of lèse-majesté has drawn denouncement from various international bodies and organizations, including HRF, for violating international law on freedom of expression.
“To capture these courageous individuals and forcibly return them back to Thailand means Laos will participate in Thailand’s human rights abuses as an accomplice, and may open the door for Laos to be subject to international condemnation and sanctions,” said the letter signed by Thor Halvorssen, president of HRF. “We respectfully urge Laos to uphold international law and reverse the decision to assist Thailand in extraditing dissidents charged with lèse-majesté.”
Just last month, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion of freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, condemned the use of lèse- majesté in Thailand and stated that the criminal provision is “incompatible with the international human rights law.” Critics of the government charged under this law receive grossly disproportionate punishment. Each charge of lèse-majesté calls for up to 15 years of imprisonment. Dissidents such as Kotchathamkhun are prodemocracy government critics that should not be put in jail for merely expressing their political opinion.
Currently, the 1999 Treaty on Extradition between the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and the Kingdom of Thailand does not allow Laos to extradite to Thailand anyone who is charged with a crime that does not exist under the Lao legal system. Since Laos does not have lèse-majesté criminal provisions, the Lao government must abide by the 1999 Treaty and refrain from extraditing Thai dissidents back to Thailand. Doing anything other than allowing them to remain in Laos will violate the 1999 Treaty.
Laos also has the responsibility under international law to reject the extradition of Thai persons back to their home country, when they are in danger of being subjected to torture.
In the letter to Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith and Minister of Foreign Affairs Saleumxay Kommasith, HRF said that agreeing to extradite non-violent prodemocracy activists that desire nothing but to seek refuge in Laos betrays the promise the Lao government has made to the international community.
The legal principle of non-refoulement is embedded in the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), which Laos has ratified. The CAT states “No State Party shall expel, return (“refouler”) or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.” Torture and ill-treatment in detention is evidently rampant in Thailand, and individuals charged with lèse-majesté are among those that face torture in prison.
Additionally, the principle of non-refoulement on the basis of risk of torture is also found in Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Laos joined as a state party in 2000 and ratified in 2009. By ratifying the above-mentioned international conventions, the Lao government has made the promise to uphold international law in the highest regard.