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LAO PDR must drop all charges against environmental activist, says rights groups

Manushya Foundation and Humanity Beyond Borders request the Lao PDR government to release environmental activist and woman human rights defender Houayheuang Xayabouly, also known as ‘Muay,’ and to drop all charges against her without any delay. 

Houayheuang Xayabouly (Source: Manushya Foundation)

Lao authorities are urged to immediately allow the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and civil society organisations, access to Muay in order to evaluate the conditions of her detention independently. The 31-year-old mother was arbitrarily arrested more than a year ago, on 12 September 2019, and has been unfairly detained since then. She was sentenced in November 2019 to five years in prison under Article 117 of the Lao criminal code, and received a fine of 20 million Lao Kip ($2,200.00 USD). She was convicted of criminal defamation and distributing anti-state propaganda. 

The Lao PDR did not respect due process in Muay’s case. She was meted out the maximum punishment solely due to the fact that she raised awareness about the harm caused to Lao people and communities by the government’s unsustainable development projects, environmental degradation and corrupt business activities. Muay explicitly called on the Lao government to protect the rights of citizens affected, and to redress the damage to their livelihoods and environment. 

“Muay has faced consistent harassment only because of her motivation to empower the Lao people to access their rights, particularly those affected at the grassroots level,” said Emilie Pradichit, Founder & Director of Manushya Foundation, a regional human rights organisation advancing the human rights of marginalised communities in Lao PDR.  

A joint submission by Manushya Foundation and Humanity Beyond Borders on 30 March 2020 to UN human rights experts highlighted the work Muay had accomplished in Laos. The authorities subsequently violated her rights by monitoring, censoring, and silencing her efforts to educate people about the human rights violations they face every day. Government pressure led to Muay losing her job as a tour guide and thus her family lost its sole breadwinner. Muay supports two retired parents, siblings, and a four-year-old daughter. 

In a letter sent to the Lao government from UN Human Rights Experts of the UN Human Rights Council, concern was raised on Muay’s rapid detention, trial and sentencing, along with the chilling effect it has on civil society in the country. This UN letter also noted the actions taken by the Lao government against Muay under Article 117 of the criminal code may not comply with its international human rights obligations. The Lao PDR has not yet responded.

“The government must immediately ensure accountability for violations committed against Muay, by releasing her from prison and resolving the ongoing human rights violations being committed against her,” said Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, Founder & Director of Humanity Beyond Borders, an organisation that launched an international campaign to ‘Free Muay’ from jail and drop all charges against her. 

The Lao PDR government continues its crackdown on critics. Lao ‘netizen’ Sangkhane Phachanthavong was arrested on 26 August 2020 in Champasak province following complaints he made on Facebook about government corruption in Laos. With actions like this, the Lao authorities are reminding people that no criticism of government policies and actions will be tolerated in the country.

  “All steps taken by the Lao government must comply with their international human rights obligations, so the rights and fundamental freedoms of all Lao people are prioritised,” concluded Emilie Pradichit.

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