Laos said yesterday that two European journalists and an American minister will be allowed to appeal the 15-year jail sentences they received for their alleged role in the death of a village security guard.
French cameraman Vincent Reynaud, Belgian photojournalist Thierry Falise and their American-Hmong interpreter, the Reverend Naw Karl Mua, were convicted and sentenced in a two-and-a-half-hour trial Monday on charges of obstructing police work and illegal possession of a gun and an explosive device.
The two Bangkok-based freelance journalists, who were reporting on the little-known Hmong insurgency in northern Laos, denied involvement in the killing.
"Yes, they can [appeal]," Sodom Phetrasy, an official at the Laotian Foreign Ministry, told reporters by telephone from the Laotian capital, Vientiane. "If they appeal, the high court of Laos will decide the case again."
He said the appeal could be filed "in the near future," but said he did not know if there was a deadline. He said he also did not know their current whereabouts.
Authorities arrested the three men on June 4, a day after what the government says was a nighttime clash between Hmong fighters and villagers that left a village guard dead in northeastern Laos.
Sodom said the appeal process "may be negotiated between the Lao government and the countries" of the defendants. "It depends on them, on the other side," he added.
The verdict has been condemned by human rights and press freedom groups and by the US government.
In a statement Monday, the US Embassy voiced regret over the guard's death, but said the trial had failed to serve justice and had fallen short of international standards of jurisprudence.
It said the US government would seek Mua's release. French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin also expressed his "strong concern" over the sentences.
Sodom dismissed the concerns.
"If they think this is not fair, I think it's wrong because one of our security men is dead," he said. "It is very hard for us."
Sodom repeated Laotian government charges that the men were "involved in the group" of Hmong rebels with whom they were traveling and did "the job ... together as a group of bandits."
Press freedom groups have said the foreigners were not involved in the killing and are being punished for reporting on Hmong rebels, a subject the communist government prefers to keep quiet.
The Hmong rebels are the remnants of a CIA army that fought the communists during the Vietnam War before the communists came to power in 1975. The Laotian government denies the long-running rebellion exists and describes the guerrillas as bandits.
Two Hmong rebels arrested and tried with the foreigners were also convicted and sentenced to 15 years. A third rebel who escaped was sentenced in absentia to the same punishment.
The court ordered all five defendants to pay the equivalent of US$1,000 each to the family of the victim, the US Embassy said.