A United Nations (UN) body has demanded that Lao authorities immediately and unconditionally release three government critics who were recently sentenced to lengthy prison terms. In its opinion, the UN recalled that the Lao government had a track record of arresting and detaining individuals “solely for the peaceful exercise of the freedom of opinion and expression.”
In an opinion adopted on August 25th 2017, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD) declared the detention of Ms. Lodkham Thammavong, Mr. Somphone Phimmasone and Mr. Soukan Chaithad arbitrary and requested that Lao authorities immediately and unconditionally release them and award them compensation for the arbitrary detention to which they have been subjected. The UNWGAD also called on the Lao government to ensure a full and independent investigation of the circumstances surrounding their arbitrary deprivation of liberty and to take appropriate measures against those responsible for the violation of their rights.
“The UN opinion that declares the detention of the three peaceful government critics arbitrary certifies that Laos has zero respect for its international human rights obligations. The Lao government should take note that it can no longer hide its repressive actions from the international community and immediately release all dissidents,” said Dimitris Christopoulos, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) President.
On March 22nd 2017, Lodkham, Somphone and Soukan were sentenced to 12, 20 and 16 years in prison respectively under Articles 56, 65 and 72 of the Criminal Code. They are detained in Samkhe Prison on the eastern outskirts of Vientiane. The three have been incarcerated since early 2016 as a result of their repeated criticism of the Lao government while they were working in Thailand. The three had posted numerous messages on Facebook that criticized the government in relation to alleged corruption, deforestation and human rights violations. On December 2nd 2015, Lodkham, Somphone and Soukan were among a group of about 30 people who protested against their government in front of the Lao embassy in Bangkok.
The UNWGAD concluded that the detention of Lodkham, Somphone and Soukan is arbitrary on the basis that: they were not promptly informed of the charges against them, contravening Articles 9(2) and 14(3)(a) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); their arrest and detention were intended to restrict the legitimate exercise of their right to freedom of opinion and expression, guaranteed by Article 19 of the ICCPR; and their right to a fair trial, protected by Articles 9(3) and 14(3)(c) of the ICCPR, was violated. Laos is a state party to the ICCPR.
The UNWGAD also raised the issues of the incommunicado detention of Lodkham, Somphone and Soukan during their lengthy pre-trial detention and the lack of legal representation or legal assistance provided to them at any stage.
The UNWGAD noted that the criminalization of the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly – illustrated by the imprisonment of Lodkham, Somphone and Soukan – is likely to have a “significant chilling effect” in deterring other individuals from exercising their fundamental freedoms.
“Lodkham, Somphone, and Soukan have been imprisoned for saying what everybody in Laos already knows – that the government is repressive and corrupt. The international community must start diverting resources away from dubious projects that line Vientiane’s pockets and provide vital support to civil society instead,” said Vanida Thephsouvanh, President of Lo Movement for Human Rights.
The UNWGAD urged Laos to bring its legislation, particularly Articles 56, 65 and 72 of the Criminal Code, into conformity with the country’s international human rights obligations. The UNWGAD also called on the Lao government to invite members of the Working Group to undertake a country visit.