A Lao human rights activist living in Thailand as a UN-recognized refugee is being held for deportation back to Laos, where he faces arrest for his advocacy work, Lao sources say.
Khoukham Keomanivong was arrested Saturday on a charge of overstaying his permission to be in the country and was tried Monday afternoon at the Don Mueang district court in the capital Bangkok, an officer at the Thug Song Hong police station told RFA.
“He was transferred to the immigration bureau after he was found guilty of overstaying his visa,” the officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Authorities held Khoukham’s one-day trial behind closed doors, citing COVID-19 concerns, and RFA reporters were not allowed inside the court building.
Court officials did not provide information on the case following the proceedings, and calls seeking comment from Thailand’s immigration bureau received no response on Monday.
Khoukham, a member of Free Laos — a group set up in Thailand to promote human rights and democracy in Laos — is currently being held at the Suan Plu detention center pending deportation, sources said.
Angkhana Neelapaijit, a former national human rights commissioner, said she is now working with colleagues to seek bail for Khoukham.
“I’m working with various networks who help foreign refugees and hope to lodge a request tomorrow,” she said, speaking to RFA and BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service. “In the case of UNHCR-protected individuals, the immigration authorities could grant bail with a bond and guarantor. Such individuals should not be forced to go back to face harm.”
‘Harm’s way in Laos’
Khoukam is a formally recognized UNHCR refugee, “and under no circumstances should Thailand send him back to Laos, where he would certainly face arrest and abuse,” added Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“The Thai authorities should release him immediately and enable him to seek protection in a third country if that is what he wants,” Robertson said.
Laos deals severely with dissidents who call for democracy and respect for human rights in the one-party communist state, “and there is no doubt that he would face arrest, imprisonment, and perhaps worse if the Thais send him back into harm’s way in Laos.”
A third country would grant asylum to Khoukham if requested by HRW, Robertson said. “But we have to make sure he doesn’t get sent back first.”
Three Lao workers who criticized their government on Facebook while working in Thailand disappeared in March 2016 after returning to Laos to renew their passports.
Somphone Phimmasone, his girlfriend Lod Thammavong, and Soukane Chaithad were later shown on television making what appeared to be forced confessions and were charged with criticizing the Lao government online while working abroad and for taking part in a protest outside the Lao embassy in Thailand.
Somphone was sentenced to a 20-year term, while Soukane was sentenced to 16 years, and Lod was handed a 12-year sentence.
In August 2019, Lao democracy activist Od Sayavong, a friend of Khoukham, vanished under mysterious circumstances in Thailand after posting a video clip online criticizing the Lao government. Listed as a “person of concern” by the UNHCR because of his advocacy for democracy and human rights in Laos, his whereabouts remain unknown. He was 34 at the time he went missing.
Khoukham, 38, told RFA’s Lao Service in an a previous report that he left Champassak province in southern Laos in 2002 to work in Bangkok.
He was one of a handful of Lao workers who organized Lao youth students and workers in Thailand and founded Free Laos, under the motto, “New Lao youths want democracy and do not support the dictatorship.”
Khoukham’s active years in the group were 2010 to 2016, when they campaigned for the release of the three workers and for missing Lao rural development expert Sombath Somphone, who disappeared in 2012. He told RFA he was scared into hiding in the Bangkok area after the series of arrests of other Lao activists.
Thailand has hosted hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing war, natural disasters and human rights violations in neighboring countries.
Human rights groups, however, criticize Thailand’s authoritarian government for recent cases in which it returned refugees and asylum-seekers to China, where they face torture, persecution and other rights abuses.
Last November, Thai authorities arrested and deported to Cambodia two activists from the banned political opposition after Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered the arrest of one of them over a poem criticizing the strongman ruler on Facebook.
In early 2019, Vietnamese blogger Truong Duy Nhat was arrested by Thai Royal Police and handed over to Vietnamese police, who took him across the border into Laos, and from there back to Vietnam.
Nhat, who had been a weekly contributor to RFA’s Vietnamese Service, was sentenced in 2020 to ten years in jail for “abusing his position and authority” in a decade-old land fraud case.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service and by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service. Written in English by Richard Finney.