Samantha Orobator, a 20-year-old British woman, is facing trial for alleged possession of 680 grams (1.5 pounds) of heroin in Laos. Detained since August 2008 in Phonthong Prison outside Vientiane, she is five months pregnant. The Lao Penal Code mandates a death sentence by firing squad for some drug-related charges, including possession of more than 500 grams of heroin. Although the death penalty has not been enforced since 1989, the Lao government informed Amnesty International in March 2009 that eighty-five people were currently sentenced to death. The Foreign Ministry has assured human rights groups and the international media that the Lao Penal Code allows pregnant women to be exempted from the death penalty, and that this exemption will be observed in the case of Ms. Orobator.
Ms. Orobator’s case is shot through with questions about the Lao judicial process, not least how she became pregnant while incarcerated in a women’s prison. In addition, she has been denied access to British or Laotian lawyers for months. After difficulty and initial denial, a lawyer from the London-based legal rights organization, Reprieve, was able to see her on 12 May 2009. Ms. Orobator has still not been given a trial date, although the Lao government claims that it will be soon. Once sentenced, it is possible that Ms. Orobator could be transferred to Britain to serve the balance. Conditions in Laotian prisons are notoriously harsh, with reports of arbitrary physical punishment and insufficient amounts of food and water. Amnesty International characterized Ms. Orobator case as one that “highlights a justice system shrouded in secrecy, characterized by lack of access to legal representation and to independent human rights monitors.”
Although her case has become internationally prominent in recent weeks, it is important to stress that she is one of many people facing injustice at the hands of the Laotian government. There are over 5,000 Lao Hmong refugees presently detained at Huay Nam Khao detention center in Phetchabun in northeastern Thailand. Citing persecution dating from collaboration with the United States and opposition to the Pathet Lao in the 1960s and 1970s, the Lao Hmong fled to Thailand beginning in 2004. They have continually requested immediate asylum and third country resettlement. The Thai government has not recognized their requests for asylum and began forced repatriation in 2005. According to Human Rights Watch, 1,580 Lao Hmong asylum seekers have been repatriated since November 2005. While the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs has alleged that these were voluntary returns, both the Thai and Laotian governments have continued to deny the United National High Commissioner on Refugees access to the Lao Hmong.
What is of concern is that once repatriated, the Lao Hmong are at risk of ill-treatment and human rights violations by the Laotian government. In January 2009, Amnesty International reported that the at least twenty girls and women forcibly returned to Laos in December 2005 were arbitrarily detained for a year and a half upon return and that some were tortured during their detention. They also reported that the whereabouts and conditions of six additional people forcibly repatriated at the same time remained unknown. Commenting on repatriations which took place in June 2008, Radio Free Asia quoted a spokesperson from the Lao Foreign Ministry who noted that those repatriated would be sent to visit their families, and “then be sent to Paksane district, Bolikhamxay province, for more questioning and “education” prior to being sent home … except for those who no longer have land, houses, and those who used to practice slash-and-burn farming.” The lack of independent human rights monitors in Laos as well as a history of mistreatment of ethnic minorities makes concerns about possible ill-treatment particularly urgent. Yet in this case, it is not only the repressive Laotian government that is of concern, but also the Thai government’s collusion that makes Lao Hmong lives insecure.
Writing about the lesè majesté case of Suwicha Thakor in Thailand, Nicholas Farrelly recently highlighted the need to ensure that Suwicha’s continuing struggle is not forgotten. In April 2009, Suwicha Thakor was convicted of violating Article 112 of the Criminal Code and the Computer Crimes Act for allegedly posting material online that was insulting to the Thai monarchy. He is currently serving a fifteen-year sentence. Farrelly called for continued international attention and pressure. He pertinently asked: “But surely his case, and its clear public interest components, merits a detailed report in the international media? Or is Suwicha going to be put in the too hard basket? Do we only care when it is Australians and Swiss doing hard time for lese majeste?”
The case of Samantha Orobator raises a resonant question. Reporting on her impending trial, Alistair Leithead of the BBC commented that “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.” The repression faced by the Lao Hmong suggests that Samantha Orobator’s case is not the only one which demands international scrutiny. As Ms. Orobator waits for her trial date and the precarious Lao Hmong wait to learn their fate, all that is certain is that there is an endemic absence of transparency and justice in Laos.
Tyrell Haberkorn is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Peace & Conflict Studies at Colgate University.