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Diplomats Meet Laos Officials to Win Release of Western Journalists, Pastor - 2003-07-02

Western diplomats have met with Lao officials in an effort to secure the release of two European journalists and an American pastor, who have been sentenced to 15 years in jail. The U.S. and French ambassadors to Laos and the Belgian ambassador to Thailand met with Lao Deputy Foreign Minister Phongsavath Boupha to discuss the jail sentences.

French journalist Vincent Reynaud, Belgian journalist Thierry Falise, and American pastor Naw Karl Mua were sentenced to 15 years in prison on Monday.

They were arrested in Laos last month while reporting on the ethnic Hmong minority in the remote north of the country. They were convicted of possessing a gun and an explosive device, and obstructing the work of police. The charges are tied to the death of a village security official.

Mr. Mua, who is a member of the Hmong minority group, served as interpreter for the two journalists.

Western governments and international press and human rights groups have demanded the release of the three men. Diplomatic sources say moves are under way to secure their release through an appeal or a presidential pardon.

Lin Neumann, Southeast Asia representative the international Committee to Protect Journalists, said it is in the best interests of the Lao government, especially for its international relations, to release the men.

"Almost all of us who have watched this case in Laos were stunned by the severity and the unfairness of the sentence that was handed down against the two journalists and their translator," he said. "I think that there is a pretty good chance from what I'm hearing that the Laotians will find some face-saving way to get them out of jail."

Three Lao arrested along with the foreigners were given sentences ranging from 12 to 20 years.

The Hmong ethnic minority has fought against Laos' communist government since 1975. Before then, the Hmong sided with the United States as it fought against communist troops in Laos.