Tue, Jul 01, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Three foreigners in Laos sentenced to 15 years in prison

AP , BANGKOK, THAILAND

A Laotian court yesterday sentenced two European journalists and an American pastor to 15 years in jail in connection with the slaying of a village security official, family sources said.

In a trial lasting about 2-1/2 hours in the northern Laotian town of Phonesavanh, the three men were convicted of two charges -- obstructing police work and illegal possession of a gun and an explosive device, said the sources who attended the trial.

French cameraman Vincent Reynaud, Belgian photojournalist Thierry Falise and the Reverend Naw Karl Mua, a Hmong-American pastor, were sentenced immediately after being convicted.

There was no immediate reaction from the governments of the three men, but human rights groups have often said that the justice system in Laos merely obeys its secretive communist rulers.

The Laotian government is also accused of persecuting ethnic Hmong people, about whom Falise and Reynaud were trying to report with the help of Mua, their interpreter.

It was not clear if the three had an avenue for appeal, said the sources contacted by telephone. They spoke on condition of anonymity.

"We will have to wait and see how things turn out. We were quite shocked by the severity of the sentence," said one source.

The three were arrested on June 4, a day after what the government says was a nighttime clash between Hmong rebels and villagers that left one security guard dead in the village of Ban Khai.

Three Hmong rebels also were arrested and tried along with the foreigners. They were also convicted and sentenced to 15 years in jail each, said the sources. A fourth rebel who escaped was sentenced in absentia to the same punishment.

All seven men were also ordered to pay 11 million kip (US$1,000) each as compensation to the family of the victim, said the sources.

Ban Khai village is 47km from Phonesavanh, which is 175km northeast of the Laotian capital, Vientiane.

The sources said the prosecutors told the court that Reynaud, Falise and Mua were part of the Hmong rebel group that took part in the fire-fight with the villagers. They said a bag was found in a shack the morning after the clash containing a bomb and a gun.

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