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Rights Group Calls on Laos to Release Information on Hmong Protest Leaders

A human rights group has called on the Lao government to release information regarding several Hmong refugees who led protests in Thailand earlier this year and were later repatriated to Laos. As Ron Corben reports from Bangkok, Human Rights Watch also wants Lao authorities to allow independent witnesses to verify the well being and whereabouts of Hmong refugees sent back to Laos.

The report released Tuesday raises fresh concern over the whereabouts of five Hmong who led protests in Thailand in June. The refugees were protesting Thailand's policy of holding them in camps.

The five were among 5,000 who marched at the Huay Nam Khao refugee camp, 370 kilometers north of Bangkok on June 20.

The refugees had been held at the camp for more than a year.

Afterward, 800 protesters were forcibly repatriated to Laos, while thousands more were returned to the camp.

Human Rights Watch says eight protest leaders and their families were sent back to Laos. The report quotes witnesses as saying three of the men were later released from a prison in Laos after being detained for three months.

Sunai Pasuk, a Human Rights Watch spokesman in Thailand, says the group is worried about the remaining five.

"We have concern that leaders of Lao Hmong who have been politically active while they were in the shelter in Thailand may face prosecution after they were sent back to Laos. Now many of them have disappeared," said Sunai." "That has increased our concern."

The report also criticizes Thailand's policy of blocking United Nations officials from verifying that Hmong who go back to Laos do so voluntarily.

Thai foreign ministry officials say no one has been forced back to Laos.

Sunai says the report repeats earlier requests for more openness.

"What Human Rights Watch want from the Lao government is to provide transparency, to provide honest and transparent information regarding the whereabouts of the refugees, particularly the leaders of the Lao Hmong, and to allow for international agencies to have regular and unhindered access to the resettlement areas," added Sunai.

During the Vietnam War, the Hmong fought alongside United States forces. After the war ended in 1975, many were forced to flee Laos, with thousands crossing into Thailand.

Since then many have been granted homes in the U.S., Australia and other countries.

Both Thailand and Laos say the current refugees are economic migrants, not victims of political persecution.