An annual pardon of prisoners in Laos has freed around 1,700 inmates from the Southeast Asian nation’s jails, while leaving all convicted of political offenses still behind bars, sources say.
The mass release in celebration of the country’s National Day on Dec. 2 continues a long tradition in the one-party communist state of leaving political dissidents locked up while others go free, a Lao rights advocate based in Paris says.
Speaking on Friday to RFA’s Lao Service, Vanida Thepsouvanh—president of the Lao Movement for Human Rights—said that, as far as is known, no political prisoner has ever been granted amnesty on a Lao National Day.
“[This is] a clear sign that the Lao government is still firmly rooted in its intolerance of political dissidents and defenders of land rights, and in its systematic repression against freedom of expression,” Thepsouvanh said.
“Scores of dissidents remain locked up in jails in Laos despite repeated calls from the international community for their release,” she said, adding, “Several have died in prison.”
“You can be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison just for calling for social justice on a Facebook post, This gives a very sad image of Laos just days ahead of the 70th anniversary of the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
Also speaking to RFA, Andrea Giorgetta—head of the Asia desk for Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights—said that this year’s limited prisoner release shows that, for the Lao government, “freedom of expression is an even more serious crime than dealing drugs or other more serious offenses.”
“We need more international pressure, and particularly by donors to the Lao government, in order to push the government of Laos to respect its international [human rights] obligations,” Giorgetta said.
'That's not normal'
Referring to the case of Bounthanh Thammavong, a Polish citizen jailed in Laos in 2015 for “disseminating propaganda against the state,” Giorgetta said the Laos-born businessman should not have spent “even one day” in jail.
“He simply peacefully criticized the government over its abysmal human rights record on Facebook. And that’s not a crime. Only in countries like Laos is this considered a very serious criminal offense, but that’s not normal, and it shouldn’t happen.”
Speaking to RFA on Dec. 6 on condition of anonymity, a Lao police officer confirmed that no political prisoners had been freed in the Dec. 2 release.
“The political prisoners are absolutely never pardoned, no matter how well they have behaved in jail. Their cases are [more serious] because they defamed the government and the [ruling] party,” he said.
“Laos is a one-party state in which the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) dominates all aspects of politics and harshly restricts civil liberties,” Washington D.C.-based Freedom House said in its annual report for 2018.
“There is no organized opposition and no truly independent civil society.”
“News coverage of the country is limited by the remoteness of some areas, repression of domestic media, and the opaque nature of the regime,” the rights advocacy group added.
Reported and translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh for RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.