Fri, Jul 04, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Case of journalists jailed in Laos lands in diplomats' hands

AP AND AFP , BANGKOK AND HANOI

Communist Laos may soon free two European journalists and an American interpreter if their governments petition to have their 15-year sentences commuted, the Laotian foreign minister said yesterday.

French cameraman Vincent Reynaud, Belgian photojournalist Thierry Falise and their Lao-American interpreter, the Reverend Naw Karl Mua, were convicted and sentenced on Monday in connection with the death of a village guard.

The two freelance journalists say they were in northern Laos to report on a little-known anti-government insurgency by members the Hmong ethnic minority. They were apparently caught in a firefight on June 3 between the rebels and villagers in which one person was killed.

Foreign Minister Somsavath Lengsavath said his deputy minister advised the ambassadors of France, Belgium and the US during a meeting yesterday to submit a formal petition for the men's release.

The men were arrested along with two Hmong fighters, who also received 15-year sentences.

Laos' secretive government -- one of the last few communist regimes in the world -- says the dead man was a village security official. It has not allowed foreign journalists into the country to cover the trial or verify facts of the case.

Somsavath said Laos has good relations with the three men's countries. "Only some individuals have done something bad. We have to try them in accordance with our law," he said.

Laos' ambassador to France, Soutsakhone Pathammavong, said on Wednesday that the three men would be freed in a "matter of days." Somsavath refused to give a time frame.

The journalists were in Laos on tourist visas to research a story on the Hmong ethnic minority.

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