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US Congress Approves Law to Normalize Trade Relations with Laos

The U.S. Senate has approved legislation to normalize trade relations with Laos, sending the bill to President Bush for his signature. But the Senate acted only after it passed a measure condemning Laos' human rights record.

The measure to extend normal trade relations with Laos was contained in broader legislation that addressed tariffs and other issues. The overall bill had wide, bipartisan support.

But key Senators troubled by the Lao government's human rights record, and in particular its treatment of the Hmong ethnic group, demanded that a separate resolution be passed to condemn alleged abuses committed in that country.

"I am regularly contacted by constituents concerned about their friends and family in Laos. Again and again, my office encounters reports of atrocities committed against the Hmong in Laos and other deplorable practices by the Lao government," said Senator Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, whose state is home to some 35,000 Hmong.

Human rights groups say the Hmong face persecution in Laos because of their support of the United States during the Vietnam War.

Mr. Feingold noted the State Department has detailed a number of concerns dealing with Laos' human rights record. "The abuse of detainees and prisoners, inhumane prison conditions, arbitrary arrests, detention and surveillance by police, a corrupt judiciary, and restrictions on freedom of speech, the press, assembly and association, are just some of the conditions the Laotians face," he said. "Trafficking in women and children for prostitution and forced labor in Laos are also serious problems."

Laos has denied the allegations.

Senator Norm Coleman, a Republican from Minnesota, whose state also has a large Hmong population, sponsored the non-binding resolution condemning Laos' human rights record. He warned the Lao government that the country's human rights situation would come under close scrutiny. "I will be watching Laos closely and if progress is not made, I expect to revisit the issue," he said.

The legislation to normalize trade relations with Laos, which has already passed the House of Representatives, was sought by the Bush administration last year.

The measure will sharply reduce the high tariffs that for decades have blocked much trade between the United States and the impoverished Laos. Trade between the two countries currently is valued at $8 million.