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Lao people walk past their country flag, in the capital Vientiane, Laos.  © 2013 AP Photo/Manish Swarup
(New York) – The Lao government should immediately release political activists arrested for planning a peaceful pro-democracy rally in Vientiane, Human Rights Watch said today.

On November 12, 2019, Lao authorities arrested at least seven activists in the loose network of the unregistered pro-democracy group Lao National Unity and accused them of planning to participate in a rally in Vientiane that had been scheduled for November 11. The Lao Movement for Human Rights said that the organizers canceled the event because many participants were put under state surveillance and could not safely travel from other provinces to the capital.

“Lao authorities should without delay release all the activists being detained for planning a peaceful pro-democracy demonstration and permit the rally to take place,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “These wrongful arrests are just the latest example of the government’s phony pledges to donor agencies and foreign governments that it will respect fundamental liberties.”

Those known to have been arrested are: Sounthone Fasongsay, Khamkone Phanthavong, Boungnone Phanthavong, Chiengsone Phanthavong, Kiettisack Hakmisouk, Santinoi Thepkaysone, and Santinoi’s wife, whose name was not disclosed. Lao government officials have not provided any information about their current whereabouts, raising concerns about enforced disappearances.

The actual number of people being detained might be much higher. Dozens of people who planned to participate in the rally have been reported missing since November 11, and their families have not yet located them.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Laos is a party, protects the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, association, and peaceful assembly. However, Lao authorities have frequently labeled as national security threats anyone peacefully expressing dissenting views, criticizing the government, or simply calling for respect for human rights and democratic rule.

A number of people who have criticized the government have been forcibly disappeared, defined as the detention of a person by state officials and a refusal to acknowledge the detention or to reveal the person’s fate or whereabouts. The prominent civil society leader Sombath Somphone, last seen in the custody of police at a checkpoint in Vientiane in December 2012, has not been heard from since.

Pro-democracy activists and dissidents who fled political persecution in Laos have also been at grave risk in neighboring countries. Od Sayavong, a refugee from Laos and prominent critic of the Lao government who lived in Bangkok, has been missing since August. There has been no progress in the Thai police investigation of his disappearance, which has significantly heightened the climate of fear among Lao exiles in Thailand. 

“Laos should not be seen as a postcard country whose serious rights abuses the world can simply ignore,” Adams said. “Governments and international agencies should press Lao authorities to immediately release all detained activists and end the persecution of the government’s critics.”

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