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Civil Liberties and Human Rights

The criminal justice system, like every aspect of life in Laos, is controlled by the party and the government. There are few legal restraints on the often arbitrary actions--including arrests--by the government, and dissent is handled by suppressing basic civil rights. Although the constitution provides for the freedoms of worship, speech, and press, as of the mid-1990s, citizens did not feel free to exercise these rights fully. There are no legal safeguards, and people are frequently arrested on vague charges. Although a penal code and a constitution that guarantee certain civil liberties have been promulgated, implementation is another matter, particularly where freedom of political expression is concerned. And, the media are state-controlled (see Mass Media , ch. 4).

Nonetheless, there is a system for prosecuting criminal behavior. Common crimes are evaluated at the local village level. More serious cases, especially politically sensitive ones, are referred to higher authorities. People's tribunals operate at district and provincial levels with judges appointed by the government.

Both Laotian journalists and Western officials are critical of the limitations on personal freedoms. In 1987 a Laotian journalist living in Thailand noted that there was little popular support for the government, but that most Laotians accepted its authority because they had little choice. In 1988 a Laotian journalist protested that open criticism of the government was forbidden and that, as a result, one of his friends was imprisoned after he complained about the continuing lack of a constitution. In 1988 Western diplomats reported that hundreds--perhaps thousands--of individuals were being held in dention centers around the country and that people still were being arrested and held for months without being charged.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the government instituted the New Economic Mechanism, a series of sweeping economic reforms geared toward establishing a market-oriented economy. Along with these economic reforms came a slight opening to the West, which provided some opportunity for scrutiny of human rights violations. However, few foreign journalists are allowed to visit Laos, and travel by diplomats and foreign aid workers is restricted. Both domestic and foreign travel by Laotians also is subject to scrutiny and restriction.

The Ministry of Interior is the main instrument of state control and guardianship over the criminal justice system. Ministry of Interior police monitor both Laotians and foreign nationals who live in Laos, and there is a system of informants in workplace committees and in residential areas. According to the United States Department of State's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1993, both the party and state monitor various aspects of family and social life through neighborhood and workplace committees. These committees are responsible for maintaining public order and reporting "bad elements" to the police, as well as carrying out political training and disciplining employees.

The criminal justice system is deficient in the area of legal precedent and representation. Trials are not held in public, although trial verdicts are publicly announced. Although there is some provision for appeal, it does not apply to important political cases. Under the constitution, judges and prosecutors are supposed to be independent and their decisions free from outside scrutiny. In practice, however, the courts appear to accept recommendations of other government agencies, especially the Ministry of Interior, in making their decisions. Theoretically, the government provides legal counsel to the accused. In practice, however, defendants represent themselves without outside counsel. The government suspended the bar in late 1992, pending new rules on the activities of private lawyers, thereby paving the way for private lawyers to practice in Laos. Meanwhile, persons accused of crimes have to defend themselves.

In 1992 the government launched a campaign to disseminate the new constitution, adopted by the National Assembly in 1991. The leadership touted its efforts at developing a legal system with a codified body of laws and a penal code. By most Western accounts, however, as of mid-1994, there had been little, if any, progress in implementing the freedoms provided for in the constitution. Although the National Assembly had enacted a criminal code and laws establishing a judiciary in November 1989, as of mid-1994 these codes still had not been implemented. Individuals are still being held without being informed of the charges or their accusers' identities.

Data as of July 1994

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