Page last updated at 14:09 GMT, Thursday, 7 May 2009 15:09 UK

The prisoner Laos does not want

As pregnant Briton Samantha Orobator faces a possible death sentence for drug smuggling in Laos, Alastair Leithead discovers the communist state is concerned the bad publicity could impact on its economy.

Samantha Orobator
Samantha Orobator fell pregnant four months after being taken into prison

The French have an expression about Laos: the Vietnamese plant rice, the Cambodians watch it grow and the Lao listen to it grow.

It is apparently that laid-back in the sleepy hollows of this hot, humid and beautiful country; especially when you consider 80% of the workforce are out in the paddy fields - listening.

The Lao People's Democratic Republic is a communist state. It is sandwiched between Vietnam and Thailand.

Its western border is framed by the mighty Mekong river which winds its way from the Tibetan plateau out into the South China Sea.

It is a long way from home and it is not a place to be in prison.

Backpacker circuit

Thirty five thousand British tourists now come here every year - it is on the backpacker circuit.

Aid money gives the government much of what it needs, but tourists are a nice little earner, and headlines about a pregnant young woman facing the death penalty on drugs-smuggling charges are bad for business.

The last thing we want here is a pregnant woman in prison
Laos government spokesman

The Lao authorities know all this, and so it is perhaps not surprising that they prevented a British barrister who had travelled here from seeing her client - when the legal aid organisation she represents had painted a not necessarily accurate picture of an innocent woman raped and facing a firing squad.

Campaign groups, like Reprieve in this case, are paid to raise the alarm, and they have certainly brought plenty of attention to the story of Samantha Orobator.

The Lao listened to what the British media was saying and did not like what they heard.

Death penalty

In strong, controlled, communist states, rules are strict and punishments harsh.

Laos is concerned the Orobator case could deter tourists

Laos was once at the heart of the Golden Triangle. Over a decade opium growth dropped sharply, but now it is drifting upwards again.

The death penalty was introduced a few years ago for anyone caught smuggling anything over half a kilo of heroin.

Although relatively small beer in trafficking terms, the amount of drugs Samantha Orobator was caught with was enough - in theory and if convicted - to result in a death sentence.

She does not deny she was a drugs mule, but says it was done under duress.

Little more is known about Samantha's case, or how she will defend a capital charge, as she has not been able to talk to a lawyer in the 10 months since she has been in jail.

She was offered one, but at a cost well beyond her and her family's means. That is where Reprieve's barrister came in - and despite the row over access to the prison, it seems to have pushed the Lao government into allocating a defence lawyer ahead of the trial.

Rape theories

Awful as it sounds, being five months pregnant certainly helps her cause.

I was told in no uncertain terms Laos wants her case "to go away".

"The last thing we want here is a pregnant woman in prison," said a spokesman.

Jane Orobator
Jane Orobator has appealed for her daughter's release

He went on to explain that according to the law a death sentence cannot be handed down to an expectant mother.

Executions in Laos are rare anyway.

As to how she became pregnant while in custody, there are theories.

Rape was a conclusion many newspapers jumped to straight away. But she, herself, has said she was not raped.

I am told she is upset by the suggestion she was. There is also a scarcely believable story of her being deliberately and medically impregnated.

She may never say what happened, but "a fling" is how it has been described here.

In strong, controlled, communist states bureaucracy is also king. As journalists we were surprised to be given official accreditation, and the government minder that comes with it.

Permission to film in or around prisons is always difficult, so it is perhaps not surprising it was denied.

But Laos knows the eyes of the world are watching; and those who care about image and reputation want the media to see they are following the rules and want to show Samantha can, at the very least, be defended at her trial.

Global tourism

As a liberal democracy, perhaps with a little hangover of colonialism, we always expect British people who get caught up in trouble abroad to be treated the same way they would at home.

Would Samantha Orobator be on the front page of the newspapers if she had been caught carrying heroin into the UK?

She would, of course, be given proper medical treatment and a free defence lawyer, but would there have been such an outpouring of public sympathy?

The ease of tourism around the globe can give people a false sense of what can happen to them in remote places when things go wrong.

Yes, there are embassies, but there are also prisons, many of them not comfortable, and court systems not perhaps as open as our own.

The foreign minister of Laos is meeting a British government minister on Thursday in London, and on the schedule is the signing of a prisoner exchange treaty between the two countries.

It may be just the opportunity Laos needs to get rid of the bad publicity, and for a very scared young woman to at least get the care she needs.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 7 May, 2009 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service

Country profile: Laos
29 Sep 11 |  Country profiles

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