Samantha Orobator: On trial in Laos

May 6, 2009

clivestaffordsmith– Clive Stafford Smith is the director of Reprieve, the UK legal action charity that uses the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners. The opinions expressed are his own. -

Samantha Orobator, a 20 year old British woman, is languishing in the Phonthong Prison in Laos, on a capital charge of carrying a pound and a half of drugs in her luggage. Under the languid Laotian legal system, she would normally have waited two years or more for a trial. However, the Laotians accelerated the schedule, announcing late on Thursday that the trial would be held this Monday. They omitted a few of the niceties: She faced the firing squad without a lawyer.

Anna Morris, our Reprieve barrister from London, was scheduled to meet with her on Tuesday, which may have contributed to the chosen trial date. Criticizing the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party is a criminal offense. Perhaps calling for a fair trial is considered too close to the line; the government reneged on its promise, made before Anna flew 9,344 kilometres (5,806 miles) from London to Laos, to allow three days of legal visits.

Controversy envelopes Samantha. She has been in prison since August 6, 2008, and yet she is due to give birth on September 6, 2009. Khenthong Nuanthasing, the Lao government spokesman, spoke to the BBC Tuesday morning. When asked whether Samantha became pregnant in the prison, he replied: “That’s impossible. A man or guard cannot act in that way *** she was pregnant when she was arrested in August.”

One might be sceptical at this. It would mean her gestation period was at least 13 months which, while plausible were she a blue whale, is not what we expect of human beings. Later Mr Nuanthasing changed his version of events, indicating that she might have been pregnant when she was arrested, but that she lost the first baby while in prison.

How she became pregnant is one pressing issue, but perhaps of most immediate concern is her health and the health of her unborn child. If she has already had one miscarriage in the prison, then Samantha must add it to one she suffered in 2006, when she was beaten by her boyfriend with a bicycle chain.

The Laotians announced Tuesday that they would not execute a pregnant woman, but they planned to plough forward with her trial within the next week, when she faces life in prison. Her prospects are dim. The U.S. State Department, in its 2008 report on Laos, notes that all judges have to be party members, and that a trial such as Samantha’s will be a foregone conclusion, stating quaintly that “judges usually decided guilt or innocence in advance…”

It is sobering to think that her child is already sixteen times more likely to die simply because Samantha will give birth in Laos rather than London. In Phonthong prison, the odds must be far worse. The State Department reports the total absence of meaningful medical care, and finds “[c]redible reports” that “some foreign prisoners were treated particularly harshly.”

Add to this the stress of a trial while five months pregnant, with a local lawyer who neither speaks the language nor prepares for trial, and the probability of another miscarriage mounts exponentially.

Samantha deserves to be judged only on a proper defense. But the one person who is indubitably innocent is her unborn child. The threat facing this child is an inhuman shame.

For more information about Samantha and how to help her, see www.reprieve.org.uk, or contact Reprieve, PO Box 52742, London EC4P 4WS. Tel: 020 7353 4640.

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