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Last Updated: Monday, 30 June, 2003, 14:48 GMT 15:48 UK
Laos court finds foreigners guilty
Thierry Falise
Thierry Falise was reporting on the Hmong people

A court in Laos has sentenced two European journalists and an American pastor to 15 years in jail, in connection with the killing of a village security guard.

The three men were convicted of two charges - obstructing the work of police officials and possession of a weapon and an explosive device, according to sources at the trial.

It is unclear whether the three men - French cameraman Vincent Reynaud, Belgian photojournalist Thierry Falise and American pastor Naw Karl Mua - will be able to appeal against their sentence.

Organisations campaigning for the rights of journalists believe the three were given heavy sentences because they were trying to cover the little-known conflict between ethnic Hmong rebel groups and the Lao army.

The Lao Government denies the existence of the rebels, and bars journalists from operating in the country without official supervision.

According to numerous human rights reports... many of the Hmong in Laos have a poor standard of living, and often feel marginalised by the authorities

Nothing is known about the fate of the four Lao nationals arrested with the foreigners. The BBC correspondent Jonathan Head says that in the past, opponents of the country's strict communist regime have disappeared after being arrested.

The trial - which took place in Phonesavanh, 175 km (110 miles) north-east of Vientiane - lasted just two and a half hours.

Few independent observers were allowed to watch the court proceedings, and the accused men appear to have been given little opportunity to defend themselves, according to our correspondent.

The international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders expressed shock and outrage at the verdict.

"We are astounded by the severity of these sentences," said the group's secretary-general, Robert Ménard.

International human rights group Amnesty International also voiced extreme concern at the outcome.

"Fifteen year prison terms after a trial lasting two hours defies belief" the organisation said.

"This show trial only confirms our continued concerns about fair trial and access to due process in Laos and makes a mockery of justice", it added in a statement.

Hmong clashes

The men were arrested after what the government described as a clash between villagers and ethnic Hmong bandits.

A rash of armed attacks on buses in recent months are also believed to be the work of Hmong groups.

Little is known about the Hmong in Laos.

But two other journalists were able to reach one of the Hmong rebel groups earlier this year, and said they were living in terrible conditions, frequently subject to attacks by government forces.

If the journalists are eventually released, it is likely to be due to diplomatic pressure from their own governments, since Laos is still heavily dependent on foreign aid, our correspondent says.




WATCH AND LISTEN
Lin Neuman, Committee to Protect Journalists
"I think these sentences are absolutely appalling in their severity"



SEE ALSO:
Foreign journalists held in Laos
11 Jun 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Fresh bus attack in Laos
21 Apr 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Laos arrests bus attack suspects
13 Feb 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Search begins for Laos gunmen
07 Feb 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Laos
28 Dec 02  |  Country profiles



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