Pastor and Journalists Released from Laos Jail

Wednesday, July 9, 2003

Release comes after pressure, but rebels remain behind bars

By: Stefan J. Bos
Special Correspondent, ASSIST News Service

BANGKOK, THAILAND (ANS) -- A Lao-American pastor and two European journalists have been freed by the Laos government less than two weeks after being sentenced to 15 years in jail amid international pressure, ASSIST News Service (ANS) monitored Wednesday, July 9.

Pastor Naw Karl Mua, who now lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, was sentenced with Belgian photojournalist Thierry Falise and French cameraman Vincent Reynaud on charges of obstructing the work of the police, and possessing a weapon and an explosive device.

Press advocacy groups as well as ANS and Christians around the world questioned the charges, suggesting the real reason for the arrest was their plans to report on the Hmong rebels, the remnants of a CIA army that fought communist forces during the Vietnam War.

The Laotian government has denied the long-running rebellion exists and describes the guerrillas as bandits. Its forces captured the pastor and journalists after they were caught in a firefight on June 3 between Hmong rebels and villagers in which a guard was reportedly killed.


We didn't know whether they would keep us 10 years, six months or three days," The Associated Press (AP) news agency quoted the Belgian journalist as telling reporters on their arrival in the Thai capital Bangkok. "They said, 'You're going to be released quite soon,' and then suddenly they changed their minds and organized this farce of a trial," Falise added.

He described the two-hour trial in which he was convicted as"a mockery of justice", the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) reported. ANS Chief Correspondent Michael Ireland, who closely monitored the story, said the arrest of especially the pastor in his native Laos made "social activists" turn him "into a living emblem of the need to address human-rights issues in that country."

"They had called for the release of the Rev. Naw-Karl Mua through letters, protests and news reports, demanding that the Bush administration suspend efforts to normalize trade relations with Laos," Ireland said.


That would be a major blow for the a land-locked nation of 5.3 million people, which depends on foreign aid and is Southeast Asia's least developed country. Nearly 77 percent of its people reportedly live on less than $2 a day.

To confirm the news of his release, Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., called Mua's wife, who reportedly wired $2,500 to the Laotian government to cover costs. "She was very relieved and pleased that official confirmation had come," said Bill Harper, chief of staff to the congresswoman, whose St. Paul district includes a large Hmong community, AP reported.

However the pastor, who served as an interpreter, and the journalists were were concerned about two Hmong rebels who were arrested with them and remain imprisoned to serve 15-year sentences.


The government has no plans to release the rebels, said Sodom Phetrasy, deputy head of the Laotian Foreign Ministry's press department. "I think they should be punished according to our verdict," Sodom told AP.

He said the three were released because of concerns expressed by France, Belgium and the United States. "We would like to maintain good relations with these countries," he explained.

A representative of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists welcomed the men's release but noted that Laos remains largely closed to international media. "The fact remains that they never should have been arrested in the first place," AP quoted A. Lin Neumann, a Bangkok-based consultant to the committee, as saying.