UN expert urges Laos to free critics

Bangkok (AFP) –


A UN rights expert has urged Laos to free three activists serving long prison sentences for criticising the country's authoritarian communist government.

The trio -- Somphone Phimmasone, Soukan Chaithad and Lodkham Thammavong -- were jailed in 2017 after taking part in a protest outside the Laos embassy in Bangkok and posting Facebook messages.

Mary Lawlor, the UN's special rapporteur on human rights defenders, said they had not had a fair trial and called for their release.

"To date, none of the above human rights defenders have had access to their lawyers," she said in a statement issued late Monday.

Reports at the time indicated that Somphone and Soukan were given sentences of 20 and 18 years respectively while Lodkham was jailed for 12 years.

But the UN statement said Somphone was actually jailed for 30 years and Soukan for 16.

While it remains a popular destination for backpackers, tiny, impoverished Laos has one of the world's most repressive governments.

Foreign journalists are not allowed in without a government minder and the communist party retains full control over local media.

Critics are routinely jailed or simply disappear.

Somphone, Soukan and Lodkham were paraded on state television in May 2016 making confessions about harming "national security".

UN expert Lawlor said the Laotian government was misusing national security as an excuse to silence critics.

"The government must provide the legal and factual basis behind the arbitrary arrest and incommunicado pre-trial detention of Ms Lodkham Thammavong, Mr Soukan Chaithad and Mr Somphone Phimmasone," Lawlor said.

"The government should also explain the harsh prison sentences handed down to these human rights defenders, and how these are compatible with international human rights norms and standards."