16 Lao nationals to be freed within 48 hours, hope for UNHCR assistance

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BANGKOK�A Bangkok appeals court has upheld the decision not to extradite 16 Lao nationals who raided a Lao customs and immigration office in Champassak Province near the Thai border in July 2000, RFA reports.

The appeal, which was filed by the Lao government in June of this year, requested the extradition of the Lao nationals, who were arrested by Thai authorities in 2000 for illegally entering Thailand. However, because Thai law prevents its courts from trying an extradition case in which the defendants were politically motivated, the Bangkok court ruled it could not extradite the raiders.

�The reason the [appeals court] affirmed the sentence was because evidence suggests the motives for the raid were not criminal, but political. According to law, they must be released within 48 hours,� Prutisith Boonthon, one of the lawyers, told RFA�s Lao service.

�They lowered the communist flag and replaced it with a Lao Royalist flag, which points to political motivations. They want a change of regime, a democratic government�it�s not just a robbery. So this is a political case, not a criminal case,� he said.

On July 3, 2000, some 60 people raided and seized a Lao customs and immigration post located on the border between Thailand�s Ubon Ratchathani Province and Laos�s Champassak Province�hoisting a Lao Royalist flag before Lao forces struck back and recaptured the border post.

Six of the raiders died in the exchange of fire, some fled into the jungle, and 28�17 Lao nationals and 11 Thais�fled over the border into Thailand. All 17 Lao nationals were convicted in Oubol Provincial Court of illegally entering Thailand, and all have completed their sentences.

Following the completion of their sentences, the Lao government filed an extradition request for the 17 raiders, who remained in a Bangkok jail pending the outcome of the extradition trial. In June, the Bangkok Criminal Court referred the case back to the Oubol Provincial Court, which has jurisdiction over the location of the raid. That court ruled the 16 remaining Lao nationals (one died in jail of natural causes) had been politically motivated, so they could not be extradited. Today�s decision by the Bangkok Appeals Court affirms the original Oubol Provincial Court decision.

While this is a victory for the 16, if the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Bangkok cannot declare them refugees within the 48-hour period of their release, all of them will be deported to Laos because they were charged with illegal entry into Thailand.

�We are overjoyed to hear the verdict, but we can�t help but be concerned that the UNHCR might not act in time,� Van Homnual, the daughter of one of the Lao nationals, told RFA. �During their incarceration, the UNHCR officials only visited them once.� According to Thai regulations, the UNHCR cannot interview those whose trials are pending as it may influence the outcome of their case.

A spokesman with the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed the decision in favor of the 16 Lao nationals, adding that the Thai government is waiting for the UNHCR to submit a request to interview them. #####


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