Lao PDR: Five years after arrest, human rights defenders still denied access to lawyers – UN expert

Geneva, April 12, 2021.- A UN expert called on the Government of Lao PDR to immediately release three human rights defenders who have been detained for more than five years, saying their continued imprisonment was an impediment to the advancement of human rights in the South-East Asian nation.

A court in the capital, Vientiane, sentenced Ms. Lodkham Thammavong, Mr. Soukane Chaithad and Mr. Somphone Phimmasone to prison terms of up to 30 years in 2017 after they took part in a demonstration outside the Lao Embassy in Thailand to express concerns over the government’s human rights record. The three, who were arrested in March 2016, had also posted messages on social media criticizing the Government.

Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, said the activists had not only been deprived of their liberty, but also their right to a fair and free trial. “To date, none of the above human rights defenders have had access to their lawyers,” she said.

“I am deeply concerned that these three human rights defenders have been criminalised and sentenced respectively to 12, 16 and 30 years imprisonment in retaliation for their legitimate human rights work and criticism of the Government’s alleged human rights violations, corruption and deforestation.”

“The misuse of national security laws to convict human rights defenders who are critical of the Government generates fear amongst all human rights defenders in the country and has had an adverse effect on their ability to carry out their legitimate human rights work,” Lawlor said. “The Government must guarantee a safe, secure and enabling environment for all human rights defenders.

“The Government must provide the legal and factual basis behind the arbitrary arrest and incommunicado pre-trial detention of Ms. Lodkham Thammavong, Mr. Soukane Chaithad and Mr. Somphone Phimmasone,” Lawlor said. “The Government should also explain the the harsh prison sentences handed down to these human rights defenders, and how these are compatible with international human rights norms and standards.”

The expert’s call has been endorsed by: Ms Leigh Toomey (Chair-Rapporteur), Ms Elina Steinerte (Vice-Chair), Miriam Estrada-Castillo, Mumba Malila, Mr Seong-Phil Hong, Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; and Mr. Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on the right to peaceful assembly and association.

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