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European Journalists, American Pastor Receive 15-Year Sentences in Laos Trial - 2003-06-30

Two European journalists and an American pastor have been sentenced to 15 years in prison by a Lao court in connection with the slaying of a village security officer.

Belgian photojournalist Thierry Falise, French cameraman Vincent Reynaud, and American pastor Naw Karl Mua were convicted of illegal possession of a gun and an explosive device, and obstructing the work of police.

The charges were tied to the death of a security official in a village.

The three were arrested with four Lao men on June 4 in a remote region of Laos while reporting on the ethnic Hmong minority. Mr. Mua was a translator for the two journalists.

The trial in the northern town of Phonesavanh, around 170 kilometers northeast from the Lao capital of Vientiane, lasted for less than three hours. Both the French and U.S. ambassadors attended the trial.

A statement from the U.S. embassy in Vientiane expressed regret for the death of the security guard, but said the three men did not receive a fair trial. It said the trial fell short of international standards of jurisprudence.

U.S. Embassy spokesman James Warren says it is too soon to know exactly what the sentencing means, or if the men will be allowed to appeal.

International press groups have expressed outrage over the arrests and demanded the release of the three men.

Lin Neumann represents the Committee to Protect Journalists in Asia. He says the verdict sends a chilling message to journalists.

"The Laotian government does not want people to know that there is still this Hmong rebellion shuddering along up there and when journalists have gone up to cover it they have been angry and in this case they caught two of them," he said.

Hmong rebels, who were backed by the United States in the 1970s, have been fighting the communist government since it took power in 1975. The secretive Lao government is sensitive about media coverage of the Hmong.

Mr. Neumann says the government has made a mistake by sentencing the three men to prison.

"I think the people in Laos know full well that these people are not armed, or rebels, or anything like that. They know that they are just journalists," he said. "It is clearly a case of them trying to cover up some of the things that are going on in their country and they do not want the outside world to know about it."

Mr. Falise and Mr. Reynaud are freelance journalists based in Bangkok. Mr. Mua is a pastor of ethnic Hmong origin from the U.S. state of Minnesota.