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.
In December 2018 three Thai political dissidents who were living in the country, Surachai Danwattananusorn, Phu Chana, and Kasalong (one name only), disappeared, having last been seen in Vientiane two days before a visit by the Thai prime minister. Later in the month, the bodies of Phu Chana and Kasalong were found near the Mekong River, on the Thai side of the border. The bodies were reportedly bound, disemboweled, and filled with concrete, and the faces beaten beyond recognition. As of November the killers and the place of death remained unknown and Surachai remained missing. The government made no public comment on the case and told the diplomatic community that the investigation into the deaths was a Thai responsibility. International media reported that the government had assured Thai officials they would closely monitor and prevent Thai activists living in the country from engaging in activities against the Thai military government.
Two other Thai political activists, Wutthipong Kachathamkhun and Itthipol Sukpaen, remained missing after being abducted in 2017 and disappearing in 2016, respectively. The government continued to state it was not aware of these abductions, had not investigated them, and had received no request from the Thai government to investigate the matter. These are the latest in a number of cases involving the disappearance of Thai activists in recent years.
There was no progress in the 2012 abduction of Sombath Somphone, a prominent civil society leader and retired founder of a nonprofit training center who was abducted in 2010, by persons in plainclothes after what appeared to be an orchestrated stop of his vehicle by traffic police in Vientiane.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The constitution and law prohibit such practices. Civil society organizations and lawyers claimed some prisoners were beaten or given electric shocks. One human rights activist reported a Christian was arrested and given an electric shock when he refused to renounce his faith; the prisoner suffered temporary hearing loss. International media reported that prisoners arrested for protesting loss of access to land were subjected to electric shocks following their arrest and suffered from malnourishment and poor health after being jailed for over a year. In April, Sy Phong, imprisoned since 2011 for leading land protests in Salavan Province, died; the government said his death was from natural causes, but others claim he was tortured.
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, with beds no wider than 20 inches. 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, although one lawyer claimed some prisoners had died at a recently opened prison in Vientiane Province due to overheating. In May international media reported on the April death of a prisoner in Salavan Province who was held in prison for eight years. Human rights groups called on the government to investigate the death.
Some prisons forced inmates to reimburse authorities upon release for the cost of food eaten during incarceration. Prisons generally provided inadequate food that families and friends had to augment.
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 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 and to request investigation of credible allegations of problematic conditions, although there were no reports of prisoners, detainees, or their family members making such requests due to fear of exacerbating poor detention conditions.
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 private religious practices, but authorities did not provide any facilities for communal worship.
Independent Monitoring: Government officials did not permit regular independent monitoring of prison conditions.
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.
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, especially in rural areas. There is a bail system, but authorities implemented it arbitrarily. There are legal procedures for house arrest, particularly for health reasons. The law provides detained, arrested, or jailed persons the right to legal representation upon request. These provisions are often not respected. International press reported, for example, that Houayheuang Xayabouly, arrested in September for criticizing the government on Facebook (see section 2.a.), was not allowed to meet with her family and friends while the investigation was ongoing.
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 to intimidate persons or extract bribes.
In November police arrested seven activists affiliated with a prodemocracy group, who had planned–but then canceled–a rally to draw attention to government “land grabs” and advocate for free speech. The activists were released after being held for four days and were not charged with any crimes.
At times authorities detained prisoners who had completed their sentences, particularly if they were unable to pay court fines.
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. 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 outside the law with impunity continued. Some judges reportedly accepted bribes. According to a local lawyer, it is becoming “difficult for people with less money” to win a court case due to widespread corruption. The legal framework provides for defense counsel, evidentiary review, and the presumption of innocence. Despite these provisions, judges reportedly decided guilt or innocence in advance of trials, basing their decisions on police or prosecutorial investigation reports. 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 civil society advocate noted that the police sometimes intimidated or sought to discredit witnesses. A defense attorney’s role is limited to such actions as asking the court for leniency in sentencing or appealing a technical matter, rather than arguing the merits of the case, challenging evidence, or mounting a true defense. 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 those involving foreigners. There is no legal right to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense.
For a fee, the government allows interpreters to provide explanations of laws and defendant rights to ethnic minority citizens and foreigners who cannot communicate in the Lao language.
Defendants may have someone other than an attorney assist them in preparing written cases and accompany them at trial. Defendants may question and present witnesses, and present evidence on their own behalf. Defendants may refuse to testify, although authorities reportedly imposed harsher penalties on defendants who did not cooperate. There is no right of appeal.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
There were no government statistics or reliable estimates available regarding the number of political prisoners. In June, nine citizens from Sekong Province were sentenced to from two to six years’ imprisonment for their 2017 protest of the government’s decision to give a Vietnamese company a concession for a rubber plantation on land that had previously been used for farming. Civil society organizations and international media reported on three political prisoners in 2018. Somphone Phimmasone, Soukan Chaithad, and Lodkham Thammavong were convicted and sentenced in 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.
Politically Motivated Reprisal Against Individuals Located Outside the Country
On August 26, Od Sayavong, a Lao prodemocracy activist living in Thailand, disappeared; his whereabouts were unknown as of November. He had been critical of the Lao government and was seeking asylum in a third country. The United Nations special rapporteur on human rights defenders stated Od may have “been disappeared.”
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.
Some families relocated due to a rail project linking Vientiane to China complained that they were not adequately compensated. (See section 1.d.)
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The law generally prohibits such actions, but the government continued its broad use of security law exemptions when it perceived a security threat.
The law prohibits unlawful searches and seizures, but in many cases does not require a warrant. 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 without a warrant (see section 2.a.).
The Ministry of Public Security monitored citizens’ 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 affiliated organizations, including the Lao Women’s Union (LWU), the Lao Youth Union, and the Lao Front for National Development, 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 opportunities to solicit bribes. Premarital cohabitation with foreigners is illegal, although it was rarely prosecuted.