Lao authorities have released a villager held since 2017 with a group arrested for protesting the loss of land awarded by the government to a Vietnamese rubber company, sources in the communist Southeast Asian state said.
Phonesawai, the fourth villager of the group to be released, was freed without official explanation on Jan. 6, a villager in Sekong province told RFA’s Lao Service, speaking on condition of anonymity. Three other villagers from the group were released in 2018, with another reported to have died in custody last year.
Ten others remain in detention.
In July 2017, 15 residents of Yeub village in Sekong’s Thateng district were detained by police for obstructing workers and cutting down trees on land granted by the government to a Vietnamese rubber company in what is believed to have been a 50-year concession.
Several of those now held in detention were beaten or subjected to electric shocks in the days following their arrest, and many are now malnourished and in failing health, relatives told RFA in earlier reports.
Speaking to RFA, Vanida Thepsouvanh—president of the Lao Movement for Human Rights, based in France—called the imprisonment of the group, including two minors, a “shocking example of arbitrary arrest and abuse of power in Laos, where too many Lao have become victims of investors.”
“Very sadly, it must not be forgotten that one of them died in custody,” Thepsouvanh said.
“I dare to hope that the person who was freed in January 2019 was not forced to sign a confession,” she said.
Also speaking to RFA, Andrea Giorgetta—head of the Asia desk for the Paris-based International Federation for Human rights—called the detention of the Yeub villagers “unjustified, arbitrary, and illegal.”
“Whatever crimes they were charged with did not justify a pre-trial detention that was extremely long. And as far as I understand, none of them has been put on trial yet,” he said.
“But still, they’ve been detained for more than six months, which is contrary even to the criminal procedure code of Laos.”
Reached by RFA’s Lao Service, Solaseumsak Phongsanouvong—vice head of Sekong province’s prosecution office—declined to comment on the case.
Land grabs and the appropriation of public property to turn over to foreign and domestic companies are common in Laos, and villagers affected by them often refuse to speak out publicly because they fear retribution.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Richard Finney.