Laos woman gets 5-year sentence for criticizing government on social media

Authorities in Laos last week sentenced a woman to five years in prison for criticizing the government on Facebook.

Houayheuang Xayabouly, 30, also known by her nickname Mouay, was arrested Sept. 12 after she voiced her concern about the government response to flooding in the country’s southern Champassak and Salavan provinces in her Sept. 5 Facebook Live video.

The delayed government response had left many Lao villagers stranded and cut off from help, she said in the video, which was viewed more than 150,000 times.

The authorities charged her with defaming the country according to Article 117 of Laos’ Criminal Code, holding her in the Champassak provincial jail.

State media reported that while detained, she confessed to her crime. In addition to the five years in prison, the maximum jail sentence, Mouay was also slapped with a 20 million kip (U.S. $2,250) fine, also the maximum.

Government defends sentence

A Champassak official told RFA that the sentence matched the crime.

“According to the Lao penal code, she is guilty of campaigning against, defaming, and attempting to overthrow the party, state, and government. That’s why she got that kind of punishment,” the official said.

Another official, from the province’s Phonthong district, where Mouay resided prior to her arrest, told RFA Monday that only her brother was present during the sentencing hearing.

But Andrea Giorgetta from the Bangkok office of the International Federation for Human Rights told RFA that the lengthy sentence was meant to scare the Lao people to keep them obedient.

“The incredibly harsh prison sentence against Mouay is designed to send a warning to the entire population that no dissent and no criticism of the government is acceptable,” he said.

“We are not surprised by the incredibly harsh prison sentence against Mouay because we’ve seen that other people in Laos have been jailed for many years for simply exercising their right to freedom of expression,” said Giorgetta.

International community must do more

Giorgetta added that the international community has been largely indifferent in cases like Mouay’s. He urged them to hold Laos accountable.

“We are disappointed by the fact that in most of those cases, and presumably also in the case of Mouay, there hasn’t been any reaction by the international community. Such behavior by the government in Vientiane deserves utter condemnation,” he said.

“The international community should firmly condemn this unacceptable prison sentence, call for the release of Mouay and all others who have been detained for criticizing the government, but also ensure that all their development and assistance programs are designed to support civil society in Laos,” said Giorgetta.