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Laos Deports Journalists, Pastor, who Faced Long Prison Sentences - 2003-07-09

Two European journalists and an American pastor arrived in Bangkok Wednesday after serving less than two weeks of a 15-year prison sentence in Laos.

Sodom Phetrasy, deputy head of the Laos Foreign Ministry's press department, said the three men were deported but could return as long as "their intentions were good."

He said the government released them Wednesday afternoon on humanitarian grounds and for the sake of good relations with France, Belgium and the United States.

Belgian photojournalist Thierry Falise, French cameraman Vincent Reynaud, and Naw Karl Mua, an ethnic Hmong American, arrived in Bangkok a few hours after their release from prison in the Lao capital, Vientiane.

Naw Karl Mua is a pastor who served as interpreter for the journalists. They were arrested in a remote northern region of Laos on June 4 while reporting on the Hmong hill tribe.

The Hmong have been waging war against the communist Laos government since it took power in 1975.

The three men were charged with possessing a gun and explosives, and obstructing a police officer. They were sentenced to 15 years in prison. The charges stem from the death of a village headman while the men were with the Hmong. Several Hmong men also were arrested, and they apparently remain in prison.

Lin Neumann, from the media watchdog group the Committee to Protect Journalists, said the men should never have been arrested. "It's still worrisome that the government would arrest these guys and put them through this kind of ordeal, facing these draconian kinds of charges," said Mr. Neumann. "I think that's a terrific punishment already for what was really just a reporting trip."

Western governments and media and human rights groups condemned the arrests.

Mark Laban, a friend of the two journalists, expressed relief at their release. He said pressure from media groups and others likely helped free them, but he voiced concern for the Hmong men who are still jailed. "I think we should remember as we celebrate the release of Vincent and Thierry that there are those still paying the price for what happened up there," he said.

The Laos government is sensitive about media reports on the Hmong, whom they refer to as bandits.