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Freed Journalists Appeal for Release of Guides in Laos - 2003-07-10

Two European journalists released from a Laos jail have appealed for the release of two guides who remain imprisoned in Vientiane. Belgian photojournalist Thierry Falise and French cameraman Vincent Reynaud called for the release of the Lao men in Bangkok Thursday.

They were deported from Laos on Wednesday, along with their Hmong American interpreter, Naw Karl Mua. The three men had been sentenced to 15 years in prison in June. They were arrested in northern Laos on June 4 after they finished filming a story on the ethnic Hmong. Mr. Reynaud says soldiers approached them as they waited with some Hmong for transportation. The Hmong, who have been fighting against the communist government since it took power in 1975, panicked and shot off a round of gunfire, which killed a village headman. Both journalists say they had no idea anyone had been killed until after their arrest. The Lao government charged the men with possessing a gun and explosives, and obstructing the work of a police officer. Three Hmong men were also arrested. The journalists say two were not present when the incident occurred. One of the three managed to escape, and was sentenced in absentia. Mr. Falise fears for those still jailed; they were sentenced to more than 10 years in prison.

"Because while we were in jail, in the same prison, we can [offer] protection for them, so they were afraid once we were out they will be taken away and maybe something bad will happen to them," said Mr. Falise. The journalists say the Hmong live in wretched conditions, with little food. They visited a community of about six hundred, who had around 80 underfed and poorly armed fighters among them.

They say the Hmong need humanitarian help, and a third country to help arrange their relocation to the United States, which is what they want.

Mr. Falise says the Hmong are terrified of the Lao government. "Two of the guys, they took us in their arms and they start to rub our face with their hand like this," he said. "For them it was a sign, a goodbye, you're going to die. Because you go down in the valley, the valley means communist and communist means death. That's exactly what it means for them." Mr. Falise says the Hmong, whom the government calls bandits, only want to live in peace. Mr. Reynaud says strong international pressure on the Lao government helped get them released. "So of course I think diplomatic pressure was very intensive and we're glad that this happened," he said.

Laos says it released the men for the sake of good relations with France, Belgium, and the United States, and on humanitarian grounds.