By: Daniel Lovering, Associated Press Writer
(AP) Laos on Wednesday released two European journalists and an American interpreter sentenced last week for the death of a village security guard, a Laotian official said.
French cameraman Vincent Reynaud, Belgian photojournalist Thierry Falise, and their Laotian-American interpreter, the Rev. Naw Karl Mua, were convicted June 30 and sentenced to 15 years in prison by a court in northern Laos.
Press advocacy groups had condemned the sentences, saying the three men were being unjustly punished for reporting on an insurgency in Laos. European and U.S. diplomats negotiated with Laotian officials to secure their release.
Sodom Phetrasy, deputy head of the Foreign Ministry’s press department, told The Associated Press that the men were escorted to the airport Wednesday afternoon and put on a flight to Bangkok.
He said the men were released due to concerns expressed by the governments of France, Belgium, and the United States.
“We would like to maintain good relations with these countries,” Sodom said, without elaborating.
The three men apparently were caught in a firefight June 3 between rebels and villagers in which the village guard was killed. The journalists said they were reporting on an insurgency by members of the Hmong ethnic minority.
Two Hmong rebels arrested along with the men, however, were not released and will remain in prison for now, Sodom added. “I think they should be punished according to our verdict. They can appeal,” he said.
Laotian Foreign Minister Lengsavat Somsavat said earlier Wednesday that Laos had reached an agreement to release the men, but gave no details of the deal.
The men’s sentences were condemned by the U.S. government and by press freedom and human rights groups, including London-based Amnesty International.
Press advocacy groups said the three were being punished for their reporting on the Hmong rebels — a highly sensitive subject for the government, which refuses to acknowledge that a Hmong insurgency exists.
The rebels are remnants of a CIA-backed army that fought against the communists before they came to power in 1975.