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, or contact Reprieve, PO Box 52742, London EC4P 4WS. Tel: 020 7353 4640.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

Not too sure how you get that she was raped in prison as all the inmates and guards are women according to the Lao authorities.I think she should be sentenced to many years inside the prison as she has broken the laws of that country. I doubt she was worrying about the amount of people who could have died from the 1.5lbs of Heroin she was carrying.I am pretty sick of all the bleeding hearts telling us that there are 6 people to a cell and they do not have beds and little food. hey don’t smuggle Heroin. I doubt very much the Lao customs have planted any drugs on her and she is guilty.Anybody with a brain should know that when you smuggle drugs in South East Asia then the penalties are harsh, don’t do it and you will not end up in prison.
As for the guy above who thinks you get away with probation in the civilised world for smuggling 1.5lbs Heroin you are wrong, she would have been sent straight to prison and would e doing a few years at the least.
She should consider herself lucky that they are not going to shoot her.

The clear message here is Don’t smuggle drugs.

Posted by Kenneth | Report as abusive

She was allegedly caught carrying a large amount of heroin near the Thai border. She appears to have been in their country, breaking their laws.

Odious as their legal system may be to others, it’s their country and people either abide by their laws, leave or face the consequences of their actions.

And she’s not British, she’s Nigerian.

Posted by Expat | Report as abusive

Third world countries are not the backyard of the British Empire anymore. Yes, Dupree, you can talk about “ass whooping” by your troops, but it doesn’t do much for your argument. As you observe, over here she would have “gotten away with probation & community service” (assuming guilt, of course – which I’m not). The results of that get-off-free system are to be seen on the sink estate where I live. Anyone who traffics heroin, knowingly destroying lives, bodies, families, communities.. well.. NO SYMPATHY.

Posted by Biffo | Report as abusive

Although it is right for Samantha to recieve a fair trial, I do not think it is right to call third world countries as hell holes.

“In any civilized country” by Dupree.

I think it is not right to generalize or to imply that third world countries as uncivilized. We are now in a new age where we are avoiding to use such deragatory terms such as a third world country as we have also equalize the use of sex sensitive words in writing.

In another view, Countries like Laos are governed by laws different from the European or American laws. And we cannot say that they do not have any understanding of human rights. As it is, different culture have different understandings. As the term is relative to different cultures.

Again, Moral issues are relative to different countries as we all have different culture. Let us try to look at both cutlure and examine that thier are alot of differences. What might be illegal or immoral in Europe may be legal or acceptable in other Asia countries.

And since Samantha was arrested and convicted in Laos, it is only right to follow what thier culture dictates to be true or right. Even if it might not follow the British law.

This I say not to be bias to “as you say it” third world countries but just as not to hold prejudice against them. Samantha still deserves a fair trail in accordance to the laws of Laos but let us be vigilant and open to all sides of the story.

Posted by gelai | Report as abusive

Kenneth, you must be incredibly naive to take for gospel anything the Lao authorities say. Phonthong Prison houses both men and women, and most of the prisoners are men. All the guards are men. Simple research will show that. Hellhole doesn’t even come close to describing the place. In 2007 a UK national, Michael Newman, serving a 7-1/2 year sentence died in horrific conditions after being refused medical treatment. Look up his before and after photos on FPSS website for foreign prisons – you will be horrified. I would not be surprised if Samantha was forced into this – the fact the drugs were strapped to her body is a clear indication. I suspect she was being used as a decoy – a sacrificial lamb to detract attention away from the mules smuggling the REAL quantities of heroin. What happened to innocent until proven guilty? If you are the kind of people who are selected for juries, I hope I never have to go in front of one. Wonder what your reaction would be if it was one of your sisters or daughters?

Posted by Barbara | Report as abusive