The Lao People’s Democratic Republic is ruled by its only constitutionally legitimate party, the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP). The most recent National Assembly election held in 2016 was not free and fair. The LPRP selected all candidates, and voting is mandatory for all citizens. Following the election the National Assembly approved Thongloun Sisoulith to be the new prime minister.
Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Human rights issues included arbitrary detention; political prisoners; censorship; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on political participation; corruption; and trafficking in persons.
The government neither prosecuted nor punished officials who committed abuses, and police and security forces committed human rights abuses with impunity.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were no credible reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
There was no progress in the 2012 abduction of Sombath Somphone, a prominent civil society leader and retired founder of a nonprofit training center, by persons in plainclothes after what appeared to be an orchestrated stop of his vehicle by traffic police in Vientiane. The government denied knowledge of his whereabouts and claimed its investigation was continuing.
Civil society organizations alleged that armed men abducted Wutthipong Kachathamkhun, a Thai activist also known as Ko Tee, in Vientiane in July 2017 and he had not been seen since. In 2016 Itthipol Sukpaen, another Thai activist, reportedly disappeared while in Vientiane and had not been seen since. The government stated it was not aware of these abductions, had not investigated them, and had not received any request from the Thai government to look into the matter.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The constitution and law prohibit such practices, and there were no reports government officials employed them. Civil society organizations claimed some prisoners were beaten or given electric shocks.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison and detention facility conditions varied widely and in some prisons were harsh due to minimal food supply, overcrowding, and inadequate medical care.
Physical Conditions: Prison cells were crowded. Some prisons reportedly held juveniles with adults, although no official or reliable statistics were available on the overall population or gender of prisoners countrywide. Due to a lack of space, pretrial detainees and convicted prisoners were held together. There was no information available on the prevalence of death in prisons or pretrial detention centers. Some prisons required inmates to reimburse authorities upon release for the cost of food eaten during incarceration. Prisoners in facilities in urban areas generally fared better than did those in smaller, provincial prisons.
Although most prisons had a clinic, usually with a doctor or nurse on the staff, medical facilities were usually deficient. Prisoners had access only to basic medical care, and treatment for serious ailments was unavailable. Prisoners received vaccinations upon arrival; if sick, they had to pay for necessary medicine. In some facilities, prisoners could arrange for treatment in police hospitals, and authorities sent prisoners to these hospitals in emergencies.
Administration: The Ministry of Public Security is responsible for monitoring prison and detention center conditions. Authorities permitted prisoners and detainees to submit complaints to judicial authorities without censorship and to request investigation of credible allegations of inhuman conditions, although there were no reports of prisoners, detainees, or their family members making such requests due to fear of exacerbating poor detention conditions. During a session of the National Assembly in 2017, the legislature’s Justice Committee raised–and the president of the Supreme Court acknowledged–concerns about deteriorating prison conditions, including overcrowding and the detention of suspects together with convicted criminals.
There was no ombudsperson to serve on behalf of prisoners and detainees. Prison wardens set prison visitation policies. Family members generally had access to prisoners and detainees once per month. Prisoners and detainees could follow some religious observances, but authorities did not provide any facilities.
Independent Monitoring: Government officials did not permit regular independent monitoring of prison conditions. During the 2017 Australia-Laos Human Rights Dialogue, Australian and EU diplomats and other foreign government officials were permitted to visit the only prison that held foreign prisoners, as well as a drug treatment detention center in Vientiane.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but some government officials did not respect these provisions, and arbitrary arrest and detention persisted.
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
The Ministry of Public Security maintains internal security but shares the function of external security with the Ministry of Defense’s security forces and with the LPRP and the LPRP’s mass organizations. The Ministry of Public Security oversees local, traffic, immigration, and security police, village police auxiliary, plus other armed police units. The armed forces have domestic security responsibilities, including counterterrorism and counterinsurgency.
Impunity remained a problem; however, there were no statistics available on its prevalence. The Ministry of Public Security’s Inspection Department maintained complaint boxes in most of the country for citizens to deposit written complaints, but statistics on utilization were not publicly available. The government revealed no information regarding the existence or nonexistence of a body that investigates abuses by security forces. There were no known actions taken by the government to train security forces on respect for human rights.
ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES
Both police and military forces have arrest powers, although generally only police exercised them. The law provides detainees the right to a prompt judicial determination of the legality of their detention. The law also requires authorities to notify detainees of the charges against them and inform next of kin of their detention within 24 hours of arrest, but this did not always occur in remote provinces. There is a bail system, but authorities implemented it arbitrarily. There were procedures for house arrest of detainees, particularly for health reasons. The law provides detained, arrested, or jailed persons the right to legal representation upon request. Three political prisoners were not allowed to meet with relatives. There were no other reports of prisoners held incommunicado.
Arbitrary Arrest: Police continued to exercise wide latitude in making arrests, relying on a provision of the law that permits warrantless arrests in urgent cases. Police reportedly used the threat of arrest as a means to intimidate persons or extract bribes. Local authorities detained several persons who belonged to minority religious groups. In September authorities detained (but did not charge) seven members of the Lao Evangelical Church for one week at a district jail in Champassack Province. In November in Savannahket Province, four members of the same church were arrested during religious services. One person was subsequently released, while three others remained in jail and had not been charged with a crime.
At times authorities detained prisoners after they completed their sentences, particularly if prisoners were unable to pay court fines. In some cases, officials released prisoners if they agreed to pay fines upon their release. The government sometimes released offenders convicted of nonviolent crimes without formally sentencing them to prison. During the National Assembly’s 2017 fall session, legislators called on judicial bodies to investigate instances of arrests without warrants by local police, and to which public prosecutors had turned a blind eye.
Pretrial Detention: The law limits detention without trial to one year. The length of detention without a pretrial hearing or formal charges is also limited to one year. The Office of the Prosecutor General reportedly made efforts to have authorities bring all prisoners to trial within the one-year limit, but officials occasionally did not meet the requirement, citing heavy workloads; the exact number of detainees held more than a year was unknown.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The law provides for an independent judiciary, but corruption and judges acting with impunity continued to be problems. Some judges reportedly accepted bribes. The legal framework provides for defense counsel, evidentiary review, and the presumption of innocence. Despite these provisions, the country was still developing a formal justice system. Judges usually decided guilt or innocence in advance of trials, basing their decisions on police or prosecutorial investigation reports. The preferred and widely used policy for resolving disputes continued to be the “Harmonious Village Policy” or “No Case Village Policy,” which discouraged villages from referring cases to the formal justice system and provided incentives to village leaders to resolve legal disputes within village mediation units. Village leaders are not lawyers or judges and do not receive legal training. Most defendants chose not to have attorneys or trained representatives due to the general perception that attorneys cannot influence court decisions.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, although the judiciary did not always uphold this right. The law provides defendants a presumption of innocence. Most trials, including criminal trials, were primarily pro forma examinations of the accused and reviews of the evidence. Defendants do not have a legal right to know promptly and in detail the charges against them, but the law requires authorities to inform persons of their rights. Trials are public, except for those involving certain types of family law or related to national security, state secrets, or children younger than age 16.
The law provides defendants the right to defend themselves with the assistance of a lawyer or other persons, but there remained a lack of qualified lawyers. Lawyers sometimes were unwilling to defend sensitive cases due to fear of retaliation by local authorities. A defense attorney may be present during a trial, but his role is passive, such as asking the court for leniency in sentencing or appealing a technical matter, not arguing the merits of the case, challenging evidence, or mounting a true defense for the client. Authorities provided defense attorneys at government expense only in cases involving children, cases likely to result in life imprisonment or the death penalty, and cases considered particularly complicated, such as ones involving foreigners. There is no legal right to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense.
The government allows interpreters to provide explanations of laws and defendant’s rights to ethnic minority citizens and foreigners who cannot communicate in the Lao language. Interpreters receive payment based on the court fee system, which the court passes on to the defendant.
Defendants may have someone assist them in preparing written cases and accompany them at trial, but only the defendant may present oral arguments at a criminal trial. Defendants may question, present witnesses, and present evidence on their own behalf. Defendants may refuse to testify, although authorities sometimes imposed harsher penalties on defendants who did not cooperate. Defendants have the right to object to charges brought against them but do not have the right to appeal.
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
There were no government statistics or reliable estimates available regarding the number of political prisoners, but civil society organizations and international media reported on three political prisoners. The criminal court convicted Somphone Phimmasone, Soukan Chaithad, and Lodkham Thammavong in March 2017 to 20, 16, and 12 years’ imprisonment, respectively, on multiple charges including treason, propaganda against the state, and gatherings aimed at causing social disorder.
CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES
The law provides for judicial independence in civil matters, but enforcement of court orders remained a problem. A person may seek a judicial remedy for violations of civil or political rights in a criminal court or pursue an administrative remedy from the National Assembly. Individuals may seek redress for violations of social and cultural rights in a civil court.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The law generally prohibits such actions, including privacy of mail, telephone, and electronic correspondence, but the government continued its broad use of security law exemptions when there was a perceived security threat.
The law prohibits unlawful searches and seizures. Although the law requires police to obtain search authorization from a prosecutor or a panel of judges, police did not always obtain prior approval, especially in rural areas. Security laws allow the government to monitor individuals’ movements and private communications, including via mobile telephones and email (see section 2.a.).
The Ministry of Public Security monitored citizen activities through a surveillance network that included secret police. A police auxiliary program in urban and rural areas, operating under individual village chiefs and local police, shared responsibility for maintaining public order and reported “undesirable” persons to police. Members of the LPRP’s front organizations, including the Lao Women’s Union (LWU), the Youth Union, and the Lao Front for National Construction, also monitored citizens.
The law allows citizens to marry foreigners only with prior government approval. Authorities may annul marriages entered into without approval, with both parties subject to arrest and fines. The government normally granted permission to marry, but the process was lengthy and burdensome, offering officials opportunity to solicit bribes. Premarital cohabitation with foreigners is illegal, although it was rarely enforced, and generally only when the Lao party complained of some injustice.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials and the government made some progress in addressing corruption. Some officials continued to engage in corrupt practices with impunity.
Corruption: Government-controlled media repeatedly reported official corruption was an outstanding problem and noted that nearly $45 million was lost in 2017 “through the violation of laws and financial disciplines by government bodies and the private sector.” The government reportedly cracked down on corruption at the national and provincial levels. The State Audit Office and State Inspection and Anti-Corruption Authority (SIAA) officials stated they were operating with an unprecedented level of autonomy and authority to conduct inspections that lead to enforcement actions. In September, eight Ministry of Finance employees were expelled for corruption and faced criminal charges, but details of the charges were not provided to media. The government established an anticorruption hotline that reportedly was very active, and members of the public frequently raised awareness of government officials’ inappropriate or suspicious activities on social media, without such postings being censored or removed. Nonetheless, the head of the National Anti-Corruption Agency stated that corruption “is getting worse.”
Financial Disclosure: There is no legal requirement for public disclosure of assets and income by appointed or elected officials, although LPRP policy requires senior officials, prior to taking their designated positions, to disclose their personal assets and those of their dependents, but not their incomes, to the party’s inspection committee. The committee inspects the officials’ assets before and after they have been in their positions. Persons not compliant with this policy are subject to unspecified measures, although the LPRP used its control of government authorities and media to block public censure of corrupt officials who were party members.
The SIAA implemented a second round of asset declarations requiring all government agencies at the central and provincial levels to declare their assets between March and September 2017. The SIAA did not announce any findings.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape, and provides for penalties of three to five years’ imprisonment. Sentences are significantly longer and may include capital punishment if the victim is younger than 18 years or is seriously injured or killed. Rape cases tried in court generally resulted in convictions with sentences ranging from three years’ imprisonment to execution. A 2016 UN Population Fund study found that one in seven women experienced physical or sexual violence and most of those women said they had experienced such violence multiple times. Only 4 percent of women who had experienced violence contacted the police.
Domestic violence is illegal, but there is no law against marital rape, and domestic violence often went unreported due to social stigma. Penalties for domestic violence, including battery, torture, and detention of persons against their will, may include both fines and imprisonment. The law grants exemption from penal liabilities in cases of physical violence without serious injury or physical damage.
The LWU and the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, in cooperation with NGOs, assisted victims of domestic violence. The Counseling and Protection Center for Women and Children in Vientiane operated a countrywide hotline for persons to report incidents of domestic violence and receive telephonic counseling.
Sexual Harassment: The law does not criminalize sexual harassment, but indecent sexual behavior toward another person is illegal and may be punished by six months to three years in prison. Victims rarely reported sexual harassment, and its prevalence remained difficult to assess.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.
Discrimination: The law provides equal rights for women as for men and equal pay for equal work, but in some regions, traditional attitudes about gender roles kept women and girls in subordinate positions and prevented them from equally accessing education, employment, and business opportunities. The law also prohibits discrimination in marriage and inheritance, although varying degrees of cultural-based discrimination against women persisted, with greater discrimination practiced by some ethnic minority groups in remote areas.
The LWU operated countrywide to promote the position of women in society, including conducting programs to strengthen the role of women; the programs were most effective in urban areas. Many women occupied decision-making positions in civil service and private business, and in urban areas, their incomes frequently were higher than those of men. Poverty continued to affect women disproportionately, especially in rural and ethnic minority communities.
Birth Registration: Regardless of where they are born, children acquire citizenship if both parents are citizens. Children born of one citizen parent acquire citizenship if born in the country or, when born outside the country’s territory, if one parent has a permanent in-country address. Parents did not register all births immediately. The village chief registers children born in remote areas, and then the local authority adds the name and date of birth of the child in the family registration book. Every family must have a family registration book. If parents failed to register a child at birth, they could request to add the child to the family registration book later.
Education: Education is compulsory, free, and universal through fifth grade, but a shortage of teachers and the expectation children would help their parents with farming in rural areas prevented some children from attending school. There were significant differences among ethnic groups in the educational opportunities available to boys and girls. To increase elementary school attendance by ethnic minority children, the government continued to support the establishment of dormitories in rural areas countrywide. School enrollment rates for girls were lower than for boys, although the gender disparity continued to decrease. According to 2016 data, 17 percent of school-age girls, compared with 11 percent of school-age boys, never attended school.
Child Abuse: The law prohibits violence against children, and offenders are subject to re-education programs and unspecified penal measures in more serious cases. (For statistics on violence against children, see the UNICEF website.)
Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age of marriage for boys and girls is 18 years, but the law allows marriage as young as 15 years with parental consent. Approximately 35 percent of girls married before they reached 18 years, and 9 percent married before they were 15 years old, a practice particularly prevalent among certain ethnic groups and impoverished rural families.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The age of consensual sex is 15 years. The law does not provide penalties for child prostitution, but the penalty for sex with a child (defined as younger than 15 years) is one to five years’ imprisonment and a fine of 500,000 to three million kip ($58 to $350). The law does not include statutory rape as a crime distinct from sex with a child or rape. Authorities did not treat child pornography differently from pornography in general, for which the penalty is three months to one year in prison and a fine of 50,000 to 200,000 kip ($5.85 to $23.40).
The country was a destination for child sex tourism. The government continued efforts to reduce demand for commercial sex through periodic raids and training workshops. The government and NGOs hosted seminars to train tourism-sector employees, and many major international hotels in Vientiane and Luang Prabang displayed posters warning against child sex tourism.
International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data.html.
There was no significant Jewish community in the country, and there were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.
Trafficking in Persons
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
Persons with Disabilities
Although constitutional protections against discrimination do not apply specifically to persons with disabilities, regulations promulgated by the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare and the Lao National Commission for the Disabled generally sought to protect such persons against discrimination. Authorities rarely enforced these regulations. Little information was available regarding discrimination in the workplace, although persons with disabilities reported it was difficult sometimes to access basic services and obtain employment.
The Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare has primary responsibility for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities. The Ministry of Health is also involved in addressing health-related needs of persons with disabilities and continued to coordinate with international NGOs.
The law requires construction projects begun after 2009 to provide accessibility for persons with disabilities, particularly buildings, roads, and public places. The law does not mandate accessibility to buildings built before its enactment or government services for persons with disabilities, but Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare regulations resulted in construction of additional sidewalk ramps.
The government continued to implement its strategic plan to protect the rights of children with disabilities and enable them to study alongside other children in schools countrywide. The nongovernmental Lao Disabled People’s Association noted that in many cases students with disabilities lacked access to separate education.
The law provides for equal rights for all members of national, racial, and ethnic groups and bars discrimination against them, including in employment and occupation. Nonetheless, some societal discrimination persisted. Moreover, some critics continued to charge the government’s resettlement program for ending slash-and-burn agriculture and opium production adversely affected many ethnic minority groups, particularly in the north. Some minority groups not involved in resettlement, notably those in remote locations, maintained they had little voice in government decisions affecting their lands and the allocation of natural resources from their areas. In some rural ethnic minority areas, a lack of livelihoods and decent employment contributed to significant migration to urban areas and practices such as illegal logging.
Of the 49 official ethnic groups in the country, the Hmong are one of the largest and most prominent. A number of Hmong officials served in senior ranks of government and the LPRP, including one Politburo member and several members of the LPRP Central Committee. Some Hmong maintained separatist or irredentist political beliefs, and small, scattered pockets of insurgents and their families remained in rural areas. The government continued to reduce its efforts to combat them actively, while continuing to offer amnesty to those who surrendered. Amnestied insurgents continued to be the focus of official suspicion and scrutiny, and the government leadership remained suspicious of the political objectives of some Hmong.
Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
No law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity for housing, employment, or government services. There were no reports of discrimination, but observers believed societal stigma and concern about repercussions led some to withhold reporting incidents of abuse.
There were no legal impediments to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) organizational activities, but the government discouraged such activities by withholding approval to organizations wishing to hold public awareness activities.
Some societal discrimination in employment and housing persisted, and there were no governmental efforts to address it. Local activists explained that most openly LGBTI persons did not attempt to apply for government or high-level private-sector jobs because there was a tacit understanding that employers were unwilling to hire them. Reports indicated lesbians faced greater societal stigma and discrimination than gay men, while the transgender population faced the highest levels of societal stigma and discrimination.
HIV and AIDS Social Stigma
Research conducted in 2012 found persons with HIV/AIDS faced significant social stigma, which for some resulted in verbal and physical assault, job loss, and income loss. The Ministry of Health continued to promote tolerance and understanding of persons with HIV/AIDS through public-awareness campaigns. The government took steps to include gay men and transgender persons in its National Strategy and Action plan for HIV/AIDS prevention. Senior government officials stated that stigma towards the LGBTI community had decreased in at least some parts of society, although the government did not directly address or support transgender issues.