A Lao human rights activist living in Thailand as a UN-recognized refugee is being held for deportation to Laos, where he faces arrest for his advocacy work, according to Lao sources.
Khoukham Keomanivong was arrested on Saturday for overstaying his authorization to be in the country and was tried on Monday afternoon at the Don Mueang District Court in Bangkok, an officer from the Thug Song Hong police station told Radio Free. Asia (RFA), with which BenarNews is affiliated.
“He was transferred to the immigration office after being found guilty of overstaying his visa,” the officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Authorities held Khoukham’s one-day trial behind closed doors, citing COVID-19 concerns, and RFA journalists were barred from entering the court building.
Court officials did not provide information on the case following the proceedings, and calls seeking comment to the Thai immigration office went unanswered on Monday.
Khoukham, a member of Free Laos – a group established in Thailand to promote human rights and democracy in Laos – is currently being held at Suan Plu detention center pending deportation, sources said.
Angkhana Neelapaijit, a former national human rights commissioner, said she was now working with colleagues to seek Khoukham’s bail.
“I work with various networks that help foreign refugees and hope to apply tomorrow,” she told RFA.
“In the case of persons protected by the UNHCR, the immigration authorities could grant bail with surety and guarantor. These people should not be forced to return to face harm,” she said, referring to the UN refugee agency.
Khoukam is an officially recognized refugee by the UNHCR, “and under no circumstances should Thailand send him back to Laos, where he would certainly risk being arrested and ill-treated”, added Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia at Human Rights. Watch.
“Thai authorities should release him immediately and allow him to seek protection in a third country if that is what he wants,” Robertson said.
Laos deals harshly 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 risk being arrested, imprisoned and possibly worse if the Thais send him back in danger to Laos.”
A third country would grant Khoukham asylum at the request of HRW, Robertson said. “But we have to make sure he’s not fired first.”
Thailand has hosted hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing war, natural disasters and human rights abuses in neighboring countries.
However, human rights groups are criticizing Thailand’s allegedly authoritarian government for recent cases in which it sent refugees and asylum seekers back to China, where they face torture, persecution and other violations of their rights.
In November, Thai authorities arrested and deported two banned political opposition activists to Cambodia after Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered the arrest of one of them for a poem criticizing the strongman on Facebook.
In August 2019, Lao democracy activist Od Sayavong disappeared 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 are unknown. He was 34 at the time of his disappearance.
In early 2019, Vietnamese blogger Truong Duy Nhat was arrested by Royal Thai Police and handed over to Vietnamese police, who took him across the border to Laos and from there to Vietnam.
Nhat, who had been a weekly contributor to RFA’s Vietnamese service, was sentenced in 2020 to ten years in prison for “abuse of position and authority” in a decade-old land fraud case.
Reported by the Lao Service of RFA and Pimuk Rakkanam in Bangkok.